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Lady Caroline Lamb

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Lady Caroline Lamb

by Eliza H. Trotter
oil on canvas, exhibited 1811
45 1/4 in. x 55 1/4 in. (1149 mm x 1403 mm)
Given by Lady Helen Lett (née Browne), 1946
Primary Collection
NPG 3312

Sitterback to top

  • Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), Novelist; Wife of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Sitter in 2 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

At the time at which this portrait was painted, Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of the future prime minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was having an affair with Sir Godfrey Webster. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1811, the portrait includes coded references to their relationship. Webster is recorded as having given Lamb two presents, a bracelet and a dog, and in the portrait the miniature bull terrier (whose name is thought to have been Phyllis) wears two collars, one of which appears to be a bracelet of set and linked gemstones. Lamb, a romantic novelist, went on to have a string of lovers including Lord Byron whom she famously described as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 52
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 84 Read entry

    Lady Caroline Lamb's famous note in her diary in 1812 after meeting Byron for the first time - 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' - was not only perspicacious but might equally well have been applied to herself. Married to William Lamb, the future Lord Melbourne and Prime Minister to Queen Victoria, she nevertheless became Byron's lover for several months before, finding her too much to handle, he terminated the relationship. She pursued him obsessively, becoming increasingly eccentric and even violent, especially so after the poet's death in 1824, when her long-suffering husband finally decided they must separate. She had written several highly romantic novels and some conventional verse, and after further romantic entanglements with younger men, such as the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, died in London at the age of forty-two.

    The circumstances of this rather amateurish but charming portrait by Eliza H. Trotter, the daughter of an Irish portrait painter, are not recorded, but the fact that it belonged to Caroline and the presence of the miniature bull terrier give a strong clue to its extraordinary origins in the scandalous world of Regency society. Dressed in the provocative 'see-through' neo-classical dress of the time, Caroline had allowed the portrait to be exhibited simply as Portrait of a Young Lady at the Royal Academy in 1811. To anyone who knew her well, its identity would of course have been obvious, and, like a later well-known portrait of her as a page by Thomas Phillips, it seems to have carried a coded message for those who could read it. The previous year, Caroline had begun her first extra-marital affair with a certain Sir Godfrey Webster, who is recorded as giving her two presents, a bracelet and a dog. Both presents appear to be shown in this painting: the little dog can be seen wearing not only its own collar but also an apparently valuable bracelet - presumably Sir Godfrey's - of set-and-linked gemstones with a clasp.

    This parading in public of a scandalous affair must have been extremely distressing to her family, and the portrait may well have been one of the factors that caused Lady Melbourne, her mother-in-law, to write to her: ‘Had you been sincere in your promises of amendment, or wished to make any return to William [her husband] for his kindness, you would have discarded and driven from your presence any persons or thing which could remind you of the unworthy object [her lover] for whose sake you had run such risks and exposed yourself so much. But on the contrary you seem to delight in everything that recalls him to you.’ In fact, the dog, whose name seems to have been Phyllis, eventually caused Caroline to repent after it had bitten her only son, Augustus. No reprisals against Phyllis appear to have been taken, however, and Caroline was soon writing to her husband from Brocket Hall, their country house: ‘Plunger [her husband’s dog?] ran away from me yesterday, and Francis found him parading at the top of the park with some stray poultry. I would not bring my pretty Phyllis, as you wished not.’ If Phyllis were indeed Sir Godfrey’s gift to his wife, one can appreciate Lamb’s reluctance to be reminded of the fact. He may well have recalled an entry he made in his commonplace book in 1809: ‘Before I was married, whenever I saw the children and the dogs allowed … to be troublesome in a family, I used to lay it all to the fault of the master of it, who might at once put a stop to it if he pleased. Since I have married, I find that this was a very rash and premature judgment.’

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 360
  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 302

Events of 1811back to top

Current affairs

George III's insanity is finally publicly admitted amidst arguments in Parliament over the credibility of his doctors. George, Prince of Wales is appointed Regent despite doubts over his capacity to rule effectively. This prompts the Prince's final split with the Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert, his clandestine wife

Art and science

John Loudon McAdam presents his new road surfacing technique to Parliament.
Jane Austen publishes Sense and Sensibility.
Sculptor Francis Leggatt Chantrey exhibits at the Royal Academy for the first time with a celebrated bust of the radical John Horne Tooke.

International

Battle of Albuera; British invade French-held Badajoz in Spain under William Carr Beresford and are victorious over Marshal Soult.
Java captured.

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