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A portrait identified for the past 125 years as depicting Martha Blount (1690-1762), long-time friend of Alexander Pope, has recently been acquired by the Virginia Historical Society in the United States. Unsigned, but in the style of Sir Godfrey Kneller and dating from c.1709-15, the painting formed part of the collection of 30 portraits assembled in the Virginia colony in the early 18th century by William Byrd II (1674-1744) of Westover plantation. Though familiar to Pope scholars, the portrait has not, to our knowledge, been examined in detail. Of particular concern here are its provenance and the significance of its striking musical images (illus. 1), which allow us to identify the sitter not as Martha Blount, but as her elder sister Teresa, and to comment on the intriguing circumstances behind the painting.
Pope made the acquaintance of the beautiful sisters Martha and Teresa, of the aristocratic Roman Catholic Blount family, about 1707, and remained intimate friends with Martha until his death, a relationship so intense that many people thought at the time they might have been secretly married. But the rich curls of Teresa (1688-1759) are said to have inspired the `deep currents of affection and sexual attraction' in The rape of the lock.(1) Teresa was dark-haired and vivacious; Martha was blond, more modest and studious. These distinctive qualities are captured in both the facial expressions and iconography of a double portrait of the sisters painted about 1716 by Charles Jervas, Pope's own art teacher (illus. 2); it hangs at Mapledurham House, the family seat on the Thames in Berkshire. There Teresa holds a wreath of myrtle, a plant identified with Venus, the goddess of bloom and beauty; Martha holds a sprig of laurel, the tree into which Daphne was transformed when defending her chastity from Apollo.(2) Jervas seems to have modelled this work on Kneller's double portrait of Rachell and Catherine Russell (duchesses, respectively, of Devonshire and Rutland) of 1686.(3) Kneller also painted Martha Blount in 1715 as Mary Magdalene (illus. 3); this too is at Mapledurham.(4)
The sitter in the Virginia portrait does resemble authenticated likenesses by Jervas of both Blount sisters. However, she does not have Martha's Nordic blond hair (a lock of which is preserved at Mapledurham), and the physiognomical resemblance to Kneller's portrait is less convincing. Those differences led Pope's biographer Maynard Mack to identify the sitter as Teresa rather than Martha; he also attributed the painting to Kneller.(5) But it is not mentioned in J. Douglas Stewart's comprehensive study of the artist. As will be shown below, the Virginia portrait was definitely painted after May 1709. Therefore, the Blount family could conceivably have commissioned Kneller to produce portraits of both sisters. There is, however, a weakness in this line of reasoning: the portrait of Martha at Mapledurl 1 am, like nearly all Kneller's late work, is signed and dated by the artist, whereas the Virginia portrait is anonymous. The explanation may be that it is a replica -- possibly even from the artist's own studio -- of a Kneller that is now lost. If so, it would have been but one of a number of period replicas in the Byrd collection.(6) The crude perspective of the keyboard (to be discussed below) suggests studio work.
Whoever the artist or the sitter, the portrait itself is for the most part well executed -- a handsome if somewhat restrained image of an attractive young lady of quality. As initially painted, however, it was a more lively image. Examination in the conservation laboratory has revealed that the sitter's dress was originally cherry red, not the champagne undercoat now visible. The red pigmentation was applied by means of a fleeting glaze which has vanished except along edges covered by the frame. The abstract power of so large an area of vivid coloration -- hinted at today by the sitter's rosy facial tones -- would have announced a spirited and energetic personality.
The identification of the sitter in the Virginia Historical Society portrait as Martha Blount (which led Mack to propose that this is actually Teresa) rests solely on Byrd family tradition. An entry in the 1813 will of the widow of William Byrd III mentions a portrait of `Mr. Blount', evidently a mistake for `Miss …