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Anonymous donor brings 18th-century portrait home to Wimpole

A secret investor has allowed the National Trust to buy an important 18th-century portrait and return it home to Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, just days before it was due to be sold at auction.

The portrait, by fashionable society artist Thomas Hudson – one of the most prolific portrait painters of the first half of the 18th century – is believed to show the eldest daughter of the first Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), Lady Elizabeth Yorke, who is depicted as a shepherdess in a pastoral style.

The painting had been on loan to Wimpole for several decades and was first offered to the trust for sale in 2014. Unable to find funds, the trust conceded that it could not afford the painting and it was returned to the lender earlier this year and scheduled for auction by Sotheby’s.

The portrait
The portrait

Iain Stewart, senior collections and house manager, said: “We were very disappointed that the property was not going to be able to raise funds, but given the financial climate, particularly due to Covid, we agreed there was no other option. Since reopening Wimpole, our volunteers have naturally been sad to see that the portrait was no longer with us.”

But to the property’s delight, an anonymous donor came forward to help secure the portrait. The owner agreed to withdraw it from auction, assisted by the auction house, Sotheby’s, and to sell it to the trust through the government’s Private Treaty Sale scheme. The portrait returned to Wimpole on Tuesday, November 9 and forms part of new volunteer-led tours inspired by the National Trust’s Year of Treasures celebrations.

Lady Elizabeth (1725–60) lived at Wimpole Hall from age 15 until her marriage in 1748 to Admiral George Anson (1697–1762). A writer who was heavily involved in political life, she corresponded with many of the leading intellectuals of her day, including her sister-in-law Jemima Yorke, whose portrait is also on display at Wimpole. She was strongly involved in the creation of the landscape at Shugborough in Staffordshire, also now in the care of the National Trust.

John Chu, senior national curator, said: “Thomas Hudson was on the lips of everyone in high society at that time: a ‘go-to’ artist able to fulfil the needs of the wealthy and influential in need of a quality likeness.

The portrait at Wimpole
The portrait at Wimpole

“This portrait shows precisely why he was such a hit in 18th-century high society. We think it was commissioned in the late 1740s when he was reaching the height of his success, painting aristocrats and celebrities in his London studio.

“His portraits have a special poise which you can see in the sitter’s elegant posture, but it is her dress and accessories which are the star of the show. The straw hat and crook are those of a shepherdess, but we are clearly not supposed to imagine this lady is doing any farm work in her silks and ribbons. It is a make-believe designed to persuade us of her innocence and honesty, qualities which were associated with pastoral life.

John continued: “I’m so glad this piece is returning to Wimpole so our visitors will be able to enjoy its paradoxes, and sheer quality, forever.”

The acquisition continues in the footsteps of Elsie Bambridge, the last private owner of Wimpole and only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling, who tried where possible to acquire objects with a provenance from Wimpole and the Yorke family.

Iain Stewart continued: “After so long, I never imagined that anyone would actually come forward and offer to help with the acquisition. We’re delighted to finally be able to acquire the portrait – we have missed it greatly and it left a considerable gap in our picture hang and presentation of the Yorke family story.”

Hilary McGrady, National Trust director-general, concluded: “Our collections are such a powerful way to tell the many different stories of the people who brought these properties to life through the centuries and this portrait is just one example of that.

“We are so grateful, on behalf of all those who will now be able to enjoy this beautiful painting for the kind gift that has allowed us to bring it home to Wimpole.”

The National Trust relies on donations to help acquire, conserve and care for the nation’s most important treasures. To make a donation or to find out more about Wimpole Hall visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

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