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Maria Anne Fitzherbert (née Smythe)

By consent of the owners; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Maria Anne Fitzherbert (née Smythe)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, circa 1788
36 in. x 28 in. (914 mm x 711 mm)
Lent by a private collection, 1976
Primary Collection
NPG L162

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Painter and first President of the Royal Academy. Artist or producer associated with 1415 portraits, Sitter associated with 39 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Alongside his gambling, drinking and gluttony, George, Prince of Wales was notorious for his serial amorous adventures. His most extreme seduction campaign came when he met the beautiful Catholic widow Mrs Fitzherbert in 1784. She resisted his advances, but George was not going to take 'no' for an answer. He proposed despite being forbidden, as heir to the throne, to marry a Catholic.Maria declined and made plans to flee the country until she received word that 'The Prince has stabbed himself. Only you can save his life.' When she arrived, she found herself coerced into marriage and a ring slipped onto her finger. Despite the secrecy that shrouded their relationship,
by George's standards it was amazingly enduring, lasting until 1805. Even after a succession of other mistresses and his failed marriage to Princess Caroline, his love for Maria never faded. Her portrait in miniature was found around his neck when he died and it was buried with him.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), pp. 146-147, 164 Read entry

    The wealthy Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert entered London high society following the death of her second husband in 1781. The Prince of Wales became infatuated with her but she refused to become his mistress. Following months of resistance, the prince finally convinced her to marry him following a feigned suicide attempt. The prince did not have the king's approval and, under the terms of the Act of Settlement in 1701, the heir could not marry a Catholic without forfeiting the right to the throne. Their marriage in 1785 took place, therefore, in a secret ceremony and was never publically acknowledged. Mrs Fitzherbert was condemned to a life of deception as the prince's 'mistress'. She patiently maintained her position for almost a decade after George's official marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, but she eventually ended their relationship in 1803. She remained the love of the prince's life and, decades after their separation, he was buried with her portrait miniature.

    This portrait is by the most fashionable portraitist of the age, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was originally full-length and may have been intended as a companion to a full-length portrait of the prince. The painting was never finished and it was cut down to its current size in 1816.

  • Clarke, Tim, Countess : the scandalous life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey / Tim Clarke., 2016, plate 5
  • Holmes, Richard; Crane, David; Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantics and Revolutionaries: Regency portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, 2002, p. 89
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 219
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 168

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Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1788back to top

Current affairs

Parliament begins an investigation into the slave trade, led by reformers Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce.
Regency Crisis; George III's madness is announced provoking a political storm.
Former Governor-General of Bengal Warren Hastings' trial begins before the House of Lords.
Henry Benedict Stuart becomes the new Stuart claimant to the British throne.

Art and science

Artist Thomas Gainsborough dies.
First edition of The Times newspaper is published in London.
Scottish engineer and inventor William Symington demonstrates the first paddle steamer on Dalswinton Loch near Dumfries.
Robert Burns writes his version of the Scots poem Auld Lang Syne.


Ministers of the French King, Louis XVI, reluctantly announce that the Estates General will meet the following year, for the first time since 1614.
United States constitution comes into force when New Hampshire becomes the ninth state to ratify it.
First Fleet reaches Australia, anchoring in Botany Bay. Arthur Phillip, selecting a suitable site for the first Australian penal colony, names the place Sydney Cove.

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