Exploring Queen Anne's Favourite in the Petworth House 'Beauties'

The Beauty Room at Petworth House in West Sussex

With Oscars buzz surrounding Olivia Colman's performance playing Queen Anne and audiences flocking to see The Favourite, this is a good moment to take a look at the graceful Petworth ‘Beauties’, a group of portrait paintings celebrating the women who were the toast of Queen Anne’s court.

 

A portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

Most prominent, as she no doubt envisaged, is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz in the film). Her influence over the Queen, as Mistress of the Robes, and the dynamics of their relationship, has long aroused interest, both in their time and ours.

So what can these pictures tell us about those dynamics?

The ‘Beauties’ were a group, close to the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, the owners of Petworth, many of whom became ladies of the Queen’s court. They were the formidable society surrounding English royalty, and their paintings shed light on their frontrunner, the Duchess of Marlborough.

Queen Anne lived from 1665 to 1714 and the ‘Beauties’ all date from the time, around 1700. Commissioned by the Duke of Somerset, whose wife was herself a Lady of the Bedchamber, they were to go in the splendid dining room of his newly remodelled home.

The importance of the 'Beauties'

Because guests like the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI were entertained here, Petworth had to exude the finest style. Historic records show the ‘Beauties’ hanging amid a mass of mirrors, velvet chairs and tasselled curtains. With this setting, they convey supreme aristocratic appeal.

The director Yorgos Lanthimos’s take on Queen Anne’s court is highly stylised in The Favourite, its otherworldliness conjured up by an ever-present colony of rabbits and several gravity-defying wigs. Michael Dahl, who painted seven of the eight ‘Beauties’, concocts something similar.

A portrait of Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire in the Beaty Room at Petworth House

The flowers and classical architecture combine with their posture and plunging dresses to create, not ladies, but ‘Beauties’, whose elite poise is irresistible. The Somersets’ fashionable decisions signal the undercurrents shaping contemporary taste.

The Duchess of Marlborough's lasting impression

Out of this sensuous display comes our eighth ‘Beauty’, you’ve guessed it, the Duchess of Marlborough. While we can’t be completely sure, due to gaps in the archives, it is likely her portrait, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, has always been displayed with the Dahls.

We do know for sure just how affectionately the Duke of Somerset felt towards the Duchess of Marlborough. Love letters he sent her after their spouses’ deaths survive. It seems the Duchess of Marlborough was a favourite of more than one.

She stands out among the ‘Beauties’ because she is painted by a different artist, but also because of the golden key at her waist, a reminder of her exceptional seniority in the royal household.

That the Duchess is presented this way at Petworth, where her authority and exclusivity are emphasised, is an intriguing insight into her social position, and how she was perceived by those around her.

The dynamics between Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough

A portrait of Queen Anne in the Beauty Room at Petworth House

When you enter the Beauty Room, Queen Anne herself greets you, in a full length portrait that towers over her now three-quarter length neighbours. She was brought into the room by a later owner of Petworth in the 1820s.

The connection between Queen and favourite here is intensified by the fact that both are painted by Kneller. Surrounded by their Dahl sisters, the serenity makes it easy to forget the Duchess of Marlborough’s spectacular fall from grace. It raises a wry smile today to see the former friends facing off.

One thing it is not so easy to forget is the stakes. With the role of Prime Minister still developing, the character of the monarch and her favourite was of colossal consequence. Elevated by Beauty, may they long hold sway.