Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, was one of the most celebrated beauties of her time. She was the daughter of the Earl of Spencer, and was married[12] at the age of seventeen to William, Duke of Devonshire, "the first match in England".

[12] March 28, 1774.

The young duchess was as clever as she was beautiful. She was fond of history, music and drawing, and she wrote verses both in French and English.[13] She was an ardent admirer of the great Johnson, and in a circle of his listeners hung with breathless interest upon his conversation. Her charming manners, her wit, wealth, and rank drew a host of admirers about her, and she became the leader of English society. Whatever the Duchess of Devonshire did, or whatever the Duchess of Devonshire wore, at once became the fashion. She opened the fashionable balls, she was a leading spirit in the Ladies' Club, and she set the standard for the height of headdresses and the length of feathers!

[13] A long poem by the Duchess was "The Passage over Mt. Gothard," celebrated in Coleridge's Ode to Georgiana.

She was not content with merely social triumphs, but her influence reached even into politics. Her most remarkable political exploit was to secure the reëlection of Charles James Fox to Parliament (1784) from the borough of Westminster. For this she has sometimes been called "Fox's Duchess," but she is usually known as "the beautiful Duchess."

Sir Joshua Reynolds was among the fortunate number upon whom the beautiful Duchess bestowed her smiles. He had first painted her portrait in her girlhood and again as a young wife but two years married (1776). He was afterwards often honored with invitations to her house and enjoyed the hospitality of her brilliant entertainments.

At length (June, 1784) a daughter was born to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, whom they christened Georgiana Dorothy. The parents were so happy in their baby that the mother founded a charitable school in her honor. The child was a winning little creature, round and rosy and full of spirits. When she was about two years old the Duchess again called her former portrait painter's services into use, desiring a picture of herself and daughter.

By this time, the girlish beauty of the Duchess had faded, and her slender figure had become somewhat stout. But the new grace of motherhood was now added to her other charms. As she had been the model of fashion for all the ladies of England in matter of dress, she now became a model of motherhood for their imitation. Fashionable women usually gave over the care and nourishment of their children to nurses, but the Duchess of Devonshire took upon herself these tender maternal duties. Thus mother and child were constantly together and became boon companions. The Duchess had a very lively nature, and a child could not wish a gayer playmate.


It is in one of their merry romps together that the painter has represented them. The mother is sitting on a sofa with the child on her knee, and the two are playing the old game of Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross. To and fro on her imaginary steed swings the little rider, supported by the encircling arm of the mother. It is rare sport, and the child kicks her bare feet and throws up her chubby arms gleefully. We can fancy we hear the baby voice gurgling with delight, and the mother smiles at the child's pleasure.

Some years afterward, the poet Coleridge, writing an ode to the beautiful Duchess, pays a tribute to her motherhood which forms a fitting comment on our picture:—

"You were a mother! at your bosom fed
The babes that loved you.
You, with laughing eyes,
Each twilight thought,
Each nascent feeling read
Which you yourself created."

It is interesting to compare the picture with that of Lady Cockburn and her Children which we have already studied. The lighting is managed in the same way, a curtain being drawn aside at the right, that we may look beyond the parapet into the open.

It is an important principle in art that in representing any inclosed space like the interior of a room, there should be some device for increasing the length of the perspective. The imagination delights in distance, and feels imprisoned where there is no opening in an inclosure.

The principal lines of this composition run diagonally from corner to corner, intersecting in the centre. Some of these are so clearly defined that we can easily trace them. One extends from the uplifted right hand of the Duchess across the slanting line of her bodice and along the lower edge of the child's frock. The lines of her left arm run parallel with this. In the other direction the uplifted arms of the baby, as well as the edge of the curtain, indicate the lines which cross these.