Jo Manning on Sophia Catherine Musters

Some final thoughts on Sir Joshua Reynolds’ favorite female sitters…and on Sir Joshua himself… as we come to the last of Reynolds’ sitters who intrigued me, Sophia Catherine Musters, whose pose as Hebe, cupbearer to the gods, was exhibited by the Royal Academy two years later, in 1782.

It’s a rather more of Reynolds’ conventional society lady portraits than Lady Worsley’s, with milady as goddess/demi-goddess, garbed in diaphanous gossamer sheers and with the Olympian breeze blowing the fine wispy curls of her classical hairstyle, but there’s a story behind it that led the curators of the Reynolds exhibit at the Tate Britain (Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity), to place Mrs. Musters alongside the much more notorious Lady Worsley and not with her sisters the Aristocrats, into the room that held the Painted Women, the room graced so beautifully by the likes of Kitty Fisher, Nelly O’Brien, and Fanny Abington, whom I consider to be Sir Joshua’s favorite sitters.

Was Sophia Catherine Musters (1756-1819) painted more than once by Sir Joshua Reynolds? This was a criterion I considered when choosing this subjective list of his favorite models. Another criterion was, did Reynolds keep any of these portraits for himself? Yes, her husband, John Musters, paid for them all, but Reynolds had had one in his possession for years. There is rather more to this story, a tantalizing tale of perhaps-besotted artists, assuredly-covetous princes, strikingly-clueless husbands, and suddenly- errant wives, than is apparent at first.

Mrs. Musters as Hebe, Cupbearer to the Gods, 1782

Mrs. Musters was a conventionally well-bred woman of the class known as the landed gentry. Hers is hardly a household name and rarely, if at all, is she mentioned amongst the scandalous wives who bore the label Fashionable Impure. Yet, for a few years, she cut a notable swathe in that circle of naughty society ladies. Hebe, Cupbearer to the Gods, may be solid proof. This is Mrs. Musters as she was never before seen.
According to the catalog of the Tate Britain exhibit, Reynolds had painted one previous portrait, in 1777, for Sophia’s husband, but it he’d actually painted two portraits before the Hebe masterpiece, though viewers may find it hard to believe these three are of the same woman.

(Note: George Romney and John Hoppner also produced portraits of Mrs. Musters, making five in all of her, and George Stubbs painted her favorite spaniel, Fanny, as well. John Musters was a man who appeared to take pleasure in his wife’s beauty and was happy – how else to explain Fanny the spaniel’s portrait! – to make her happy. The very definition of uxorious -- excessively devoted to one’s wife -- was it not?
Here’s one of the other two, painted the year after the Musters were wed. (Note that this is a sepia engraving after Reynolds’ portrait, not his oil in full colors.) Still, it is rather ho-hum. Can this possibly be the same vibrant woman as the appealingly windswept Hebe, cupbearer to the gods, who here stands, sedate, a society matron in a subdued gown, her hairdo impossibly high, in a lovely garden, plucking blooms from a rosebush, looking off into the distance, whilst her spaniel gazes adoringly at her feet? Is this the free-spirited Hebe of the wild hair and flowing scarf who looks the viewer unabashedly in the eye, storm clouds swirling threateningly behind her?


Mrs. Musters, Colwick Hall, Nottinghamshire, 1777
But wait, there’s more!

Here is another portrait, a portrait bust of Sophia Catherine, painted at roughly the same time as the charming but altogether bucolic portrait. The hair is still that impossible looking updo, the hairline (not quite a widow’s peak) of the Hebe, the same rosy cheeks and dark eyes, but that’s a rather low cleavage, and the sitter looks full-on – though her expression is somewhat vapid -- at the viewer whilst daringly displaying her buxom charms. Yes, I would agree that these are all the same woman, but something has happened on the way to the masterpiece that is Hebe. Something has happened to Mrs. Musters.

Yet another painting of Mrs. Musters by Sir Joshua Reynolds, supposedly painted circa 1777-80

The facts of what happened was that Mrs. Musters had had three children in three years – in 1777, 1778, and 1779 – and the last baby, a girl, died within a month or two of her birth. My speculation is that three children one after the other, grief at the death of one of them, and perhaps the boredom of country life, might have had a negative impact upon the young woman’s health; she may well have been suffering from depression.

Fact: she went to the spa at Bath. Speculation: did her concerned husband send her there to take the healthful waters because of poor health? But the spa town of Bath was a fashionable watering-hole, too, where the crème de la crème of society gathered. And she caught the wandering eye of the Prince of Wales (whose future Pavilion would be built there). ‘Twas said she caught the wandering eye of many more men as well…

Sophia Catherine was an exceptionally fetching and beautiful woman, and, according to the chronicler Fanny Burney, she became “the reigning toast of the season.” From Bath, she went on to London, no doubt to break more hearts, whilst, ‘tis also said, her husband “pursued his interest in field sports…and remodeling his country house.” Alas, the typical English country gentleman...

The Prince coveted the woman, as he coveted the many beautiful women in his royal orbit, but Mrs. Musters’ Hebe portrait, it seems, would do just as well for him. (The future King George IV also loved collecting images of society’s beauties.) In 1779, he prevailed upon Sir Joshua to reclaim the painting from Mr. Musters, and the painter agreed, giving the excuse that he needed “to make some improvements to the composition.” The ploy worked – poor, gullible Mr. Musters! -- but Reynolds was put into an awkward position, as it turned out, when he passed Hebe on to the Prince. He soon realized he could not return it to Musters and he could not retrieve it from the Prince, and he wanted it, too.

What to do?

First, Reynolds returned Musters’ money, claiming the portrait had been stolen from his studio in Leicester Square, and so the Prince – probably somewhat of a voyeur himself – enjoyed the purloined portrait in the privacy of one of his many sumptuous palaces for several years. In the meantime, the couple had become publicly estranged, with Musters remaining in the country and Sophia still the toast of the town, and Reynolds went on to make a copy of Hebe for himself, which he exhibited in 1785 at the Royal Academy. (He probably took the chance realizing that Musters never came up to London and so would never know the portrait was on view and that he knew no one who’d inform him.) Eventually, however, Mr. and Mrs. Musters reconciled, and eventually, too, Hebe – either the copy or perhaps the original itself – went back to John Musters at Colwick Hall, Nottinghamshire.

Did Reynolds and Mrs. Musters have an affair?

No hard evidence, but it’s intriguing to know that he kept a copy of Hebe for his own pleasure. It does speak to the possible depth of feeling for her. She was acknowledged by many to be a very beautiful woman and this portrait exhibits the sensuality that one can clearly see Lady Worsley’s portrait sadly lacks and Reynolds’ favorite sitters so easily exude. So, an affair? Possibly. The portrait is beautiful…and Mrs. Musters did apparently have a number of amorous adventures, so why not with the artist who’d painted her thrice? Whatever, one can safely say Mrs. M. did make him happy, if not in her actual luscious flesh, at least in the sensuous painted flesh glowing in the painting’s two dimensions.

Fanny, the favorite spaniel, by George Stubbs, circa 1777

And, lest I forget, here is that adorable spaniel, Fanny, an animal worthy enough to have had its own portrait painted. One hopes that by the time Mrs. Musters returned home the dear pet was still romping about happily in Colwick Hall’s garden.

One last word, summing up the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds on portraiture in Britain, from Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his A History Of British Art (1999):
“Almost single-handedly, Reynolds raised the status of the painter in Britain from craftsman to artist. Before Reynolds, painters used the traditional tradesmen’s entrance. After him they were allowed – or at least some of them were – through the front door.”

I also like what Graham-Dixon had to say about Sir Joshua’s attitude towards his sitters, which I believe reinforces what I’ve said about his favorite models. And I also like that he uses Fanny Abington as his example:
“Reynolds … was such a fine observer of the struggles of others. In his portrait of Mrs. Abington, actress and courtesan, is a tremendously humane portrait of a girl who has pulled herself up into the higher reaches of society by sheer will and vitality. He painted her in the flirtatious role of Miss Prue, in William Congreve’s Restoration comedy Love For Love, and the way he did so suggests a subtle bond of sympathy between artist and sitter. Reynolds, himself a frequently theatrical artist and a little bit of a prostitute, if only of his own talents, shows us someone more complicated than the stock character of a wanton. He presents Mrs. Abington to us as she seemed to him, tough and beautiful. There is a mixture of artfulness and vulnerability in her eyes.”

You have to love Sir Joshua Reynolds, this complex man and artist.

To come: The incomparable “phizmonger” Thomas Gainsborough, the great rival – and friend – of Reynolds, whose artistic temperament and whose relationship to his sitters, could not have been more different from that of Sir Joshua....


Wonderful post - I just adore this blog, it's amazing! <3

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