Celebrating the representation of English female beauty in art over a period of almost 500 years.

‘Confound the nose, there’s no end to it’, Gainsborough is reported to have exclaimed as he struggled to adequately capture the features of famed actress, Sarah Siddons, in paint.

The resulting portrait is part of this show in County Durham, exploring notions of female beauty between the 17th and 20th centuries. Featured are an array of masterpieces that document the ideal ‘English Rose’ aesthetic that dominated during this 400 year period.

The museum’s recent acquisition, Olivia, Mrs Endymion Porter, is heralded as key example; painted by Van Dyck at the height of his career, the picture shows her ‘au naturel’ in her nightgown and pearls.

While the women who fill these paintings may have been considered great beauties of their time, the exhibition is careful to highlight the limit of their opportunities.

For example, a double portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley – part of a musical family known as ‘The Nest of the Nightingales’ – is the only known picture of the sisters together. Although their extraordinary talents saw them perform for royalty, once they were married they were forbidden from singing in public.

The Bowes Museum

Newgate, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 8NP

01833 690606


Opening times

Mon – Sun, 10am – 5pm

Closed 25, 26 Dec and 1 Jan

Free entry with National Art Pass

Free exhibitions with National Art Pass

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