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Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Margaret ('Peg') Woffington (1720?-1760), Actress

A number of portraits of unknown ladies, whose features somewhat resembled her, and an even larger number whose features bear almost no resemblance, have been called Woffington, and the subject should be approached with caution. Portraits of Lady Maria (Walpole), who married in 1746 Charles Churchill, and of Ethelreda (Harrison), wife of the 3rd Viscount Townshend, 1703-88, have sometimes been called Woffington or could be mistaken for her. Her sister Mary, who played the part of Cherry in The Beaux’ Stratagem in 1745, subsequently married the Hon. and Rev. Robert Cholmondeley. No portraits of her appear to be recorded but her existence adds a possible hazard to identification. [1] She survived Peg by over half a century.

The following types were engraved in her lifetime: a rather crude anonymous head and shoulders by John Brooks, 1740 (F. O'Donoghue and Sir Henry M. Hake, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits ... in the British Museum, 1908-25, 14); a whole length with a rather similar face in the Witt collection, lettered An Epilogue intended to be spoken by Miss Woffington in the Habit of a Volunteer upon reading the Gazette containing an Account of the late Action at [Elkirk] (?)1745; and a half length oil as a comedienne, by J. G. Eccardt in Lord Talbot de Malahide's collection, companion with a portrait of Nancy Oldfield and engraved by J. Faber junior in 1745 (J. Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotinto Portraits, 1878-83, 391). Eccardt also painted her as a shepherdess and the portrait then in Charles Bedford's collection was engraved by Pearson for the European Magazine but only in 1795. P. Van Bleeck's portrait of her as Phebe, done in 1747, and E. Haytley's whole length of her as Mrs Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor are both known only from engravings, the former by the artist 1747 (J. Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotinto Portraits, 1878-83, 1) and the latter by Faber in 1751 (J. Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotinto Portraits, 1878-83, 392). In 1753 she was painted by John Lewis. The portrait, signed and dated 1753, is in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin [Editor’s note, 2014: another version now National Portrait Gallery]. It was engraved by Michael Jackson. A portrait by Henry Pickering is now known only by an engraving by Faber (J. Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotinto Portraits, 1878-83, 393).

Failing a provenance traceable to the sitter or artist, most of the considerable number of portraits stated to represent her, including NPG 650 and NPG 2177, stand or fall on comparison with the above. The Mercier in the Garrick Club, seen at the Mercier exhibition 1969 (35) along with such pieces as 'The Drinker' (16) and 'Girl at a Mirror' (34), seems quite clearly a subject picture. The following appear to have been identified as Peg on insufficient evidence: all the portraits by Hogarth or attributed to Hogarth, including the lady in Mary Queen of Scots costume at Petworth; [2] the principal figure from Plate III of 'A Harlot's Progress' in the Price sale, 1895; [3] the lady in the white lace cap lent by the Marquess of Lansdowne to the British Theatrical Exhibition, 1933 (323) who may be Nancy Dawson; the actress in the role of 'Elvira' in The Spanish Friar, [4] and the lady with the bird cage in the Hanbury Williams collection, [5] painted by Vanloo c.1742. None seems to have been known as her in the eighteenth century.

1) W. J. Lawrence, 'Peg Woffington's Sister', The Sphere, 19 April 1904, p 48, mentions a portrait of ‘Mary Woffington' by Cotes, but the identification is not certain.
2) C. H. Collins Baker, Catalogue of the Petworth Collection of Pictures in the Possession of Lord Leconfield, 1920, p 24 (214).
3) Christie's, 15 June 1895, lot 6.
4) Exhibited 'Swift and His Age', National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1967 (62); replica in the Garrick Club, see C. K. Adams, A Catalogue of the Pictures in the Garrick Club, 1936, p 127 (425).
5) Exhibited 'Great Irishmen', Ulster Museum, Belfast, 1965 (236). Another version is in the V & A, Jones Collection (601-1882). The rather similar portraits of Elizabeth Countess of Ilchester (1723-92) in the Ilchester collection, Holland House (1904 catalogue, 147), probably painted in 1744 (Addenda and Corrigenda, 1939, p 17), and at Melbury (1883 catalogue, 41), on the other hand, seem not to represent the same sitter as in the Hanbury Williams picture.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.