Discover the story of Fairfax House's female financier
The long-missing portrait of the female financier of Fairfax House now on display!
Thanks to support from Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as generous donations from the public, we were able to purchase Elizabeth, Viscountess Dunbar, and bring her home to Fairfax House.
You’ll find Elizabeth in our drawing room – entry is free as part of general admission to Fairfax House.
What is Elizabeth’s story?
A wealthy woman in her own right, Elizabeth Clifford married Charles Gregory Fairfax, later 9th Viscount of Emley, in November 1720. Sadly Elizabeth died just six months later from smallpox, but despite this, she is an integral part in the founding of Fairfax House.
Elizabeth brought with her a vast marriage settlement and the union between her and Charlies Gregory was described as the most provident marriage made by Fairfax since the sixteenth century. The money was used to stablise the shaky Fairfax estates and allowed Charles Gregory to later undertake a radical building programme at Gilling Castle. With this capital he was also able to acquire the land that made up the Ampleforth estates and even finance his purchase and remodelling of Fairfax House for his daughter Ann.
We hope this purchase will support our plan to reveal the stories of other women who have been forgotten by history. We have already started undergoing new research into Elizabeth’s life and can’t wait to share what we uncover about her!
How did we find and purchase Elizabeth?
The existence of this portrait had been known about for many years, but its location was lost. Research undertaken by our Collections Manager Rachel Wallis revealed that the portrait was in danger of being sold into a private collection, and potentially internationally exported.
We then launched a campaign to raise enough funds to purchase the portrait, which has been attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller, and return it to permanent public display. The campaign to raise money to purchase the portrait was supported by Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as generous donations from the public.
We are so grateful that we were able to save this portrait from going into private collection, and are instead able to display it – especially given its significance to the house’s history.
Who is Sir Godfrey Kneller?
The portrait of Elizabeth has been attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723). Born in Germany, Kneller studied on the continent before moving to England. Here he established himself as the leading portraitist of the period, founding a studio that churned out portraits of the rich and famous on an almost industrial scale.
Elizabeth’s portrait is a fine example of one of Kneller’s more intimate female studies. The emphasis is placed directly upon the sitter’s alluring femininity, enhanced by the falling hair over her shoulder. Her fine features have been sensitively rendered – the bold handling or flesh tones and free fluidity of brushstrokes draws the viewer in. The sizeable area of grey ground is typical of Kneller’s later works. A method developed by the artist to speed up the painting process, it meant his studio could better cope with the many demands of a large circle of patrons.
At the time of his death in 1723, about five hundred works remained unfinished in his studio. To date, he is the only artist to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey.