Special 18th-century portrait returns home to Wimpole

Two art handlers bring the painting inside
Published : 12 Nov 2021 Last update : 18 Nov 2021

A generous anonymous donation has allowed the National Trust to purchase an important 18th-century portrait and return it home to Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, with final agreements reached just days before it was due to be sold at auction.

The attractive portrait, by fashionable society artist Thomas Hudson – one of the most prolific portrait painters of the first half of the 18th-century – is believed to show the eldest daughter of the first Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), Lady Elizabeth Yorke, who is depicted as a shepherdess in a pastoral style.

Lady Elizabeth Yorke by Thomas Hudson returns to Wimpole
Two art handlers carry the painting up the front steps
Lady Elizabeth Yorke by Thomas Hudson returns to Wimpole

The painting had been on loan to Wimpole for several decades and was first offered to the National Trust for sale in 2014. Unable to find funds, we conceded that we could not pursue the acquisition and the painting was returned to the lender earlier this year and scheduled for auction by Sotheby’s. 

Two art handlers unwrap the painting
Two art handlers unwrap the painting
Two art handlers unwrap the painting

Iain Stewart, Senior Collections & House Manager, said: “We were very disappointed that the property was not going to be able to raise funds, but given the financial climate, particularly due to Covid, we agreed there was no other option. Since reopening Wimpole, our volunteers have naturally been sad to see that the portrait was no longer with us.” 

Cleaning the back of the painting with a soft brush and hoover
Cleaning the back of the painting with a soft brush and hoover
Cleaning the back of the painting with a soft brush and hoover

But to the property’s delight, an anonymous donor came forward to help secure the portrait. The owner agreed to withdraw it from auction, assisted by the auction house, Sotheby’s, and to sell it to the Trust through the government’s Private Treaty Sale scheme. The portrait returned to Wimpole on Tuesday 9 November and forms part of new volunteer-led tours inspired by the National Trust’s Year of Treasures celebrations.  

Two art handlers bring the painting inside
Two art handlers bring the painting inside
Two art handlers bring the painting inside

The charming portrait is believed to depict Lady Elizabeth Yorke (1725–60), who lived at Wimpole Hall from age 15 until her marriage in 1748 to Admiral George Anson (1697–1762). A writer who was heavily involved in political life, she corresponded with many of the leading intellectuals of her day, including her sister-in-law Jemima Yorke, whose portrait is also on display at Wimpole. She was strongly involved in the creation of the landscape at Shugborough in Staffordshire, also now in the care of the National Trust. 

Hanging the portrait
Hanging the portrait
Hanging the portrait

John Chu, Senior National Curator, said: “Thomas Hudson was on the lips of everyone in high society at that time: a ‘go-to’ artist able to fulfil the needs of the wealthy and influential in need of a quality likeness.  

“This portrait shows precisely why he was such a hit in 18th-century high society. We think it was commissioned in the late 1740s when he was reaching the height of his success, painting aristocrats and celebrities in his London studio.  

“His portraits have a special poise which you can see in the sitter’s elegant posture, but it is her dress and accessories which are the star of the show. The straw hat and crook are those of a shepherdess, but we are clearly not supposed to imagine this lady is doing any farm work in her silks and ribbons.  It is a make-believe designed to persuade us of her innocence and honesty, qualities which were associated with pastoral life. 

John continued: “I’m so glad this piece is returning to Wimpole so our visitors will be able to enjoy its paradoxes, and sheer quality, forever.” 

Checking the portrait on the wall
Checking the portrait on the wall
Checking the portrait on the wall

The acquisition continues in the footsteps of Mrs Elsie Bambridge, the last private owner of Wimpole and only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling, who tried where possible to acquire objects with a provenance from Wimpole and the Yorke family.  

Iain Stewart continued: “After so long, I never imagined that anyone would actually come forward and offer to help with the acquisition. We’re delighted to finally be able to acquire the portrait – we have missed it greatly and it left a considerable gap in our picture hang and presentation of the Yorke family story.” 

Hilary McGrady, National Trust Director-General, concluded: “Our collections are such a powerful way to tell the many different stories of the people who brought these properties to life through the centuries and this portrait is just one example of that.  

“We are so grateful, on behalf of all those who will now be able to enjoy this beautiful painting for the kind gift that has allowed us to bring it home to Wimpole.” 

Lady Elizabeth Yorke by Thomas Hudson is back at Wimpole
Lady Elizabeth Yorke by Thomas Hudson is back at Wimpole
Lady Elizabeth Yorke by Thomas Hudson is back at Wimpole