Portrait of the Regency: A Nightmare

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter unwelcome in his native country due to some political trouble. He eventually settled in England, where he became a stalwart at the Royal Academy and a master of Romantic painting.

In his spare time, he translated Homer for Cowper and Lavater’s work on physiognomy for England. He later declared, after Mrs. Fuseli had to bar his studio against an infatuated Mary Wollstonecraft:

“I hate clever women. They are only troublesome.”

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Critics called his art, “Rubens in motion.” His figures writhe with violence, his incredible beasts glare fantastically. Regency era sensibilities were most particularly challenged by his painting, “The Nightmare.”

Naturally, Sir Thomas Lawrence couldn’t wait to tell Miss Croft just how timid a fellow this painter of supernatural visions really was.

Fuseli had been invited to spend an evening at a wealthy patron’s country house. After dinner, as the ladies retired to the drawing room, the artist got up from the table and left as well. The gentlemen wondered why the guest of honor had abandoned them but consoled themselves with the notion that foreigners disliked sitting after dinner.

When the ladies returned, without Fuseli, the host demanded of his lady where she’d put him. Remonstrances were exchanged while someone was dispatched to the artist’s room in the event he’d gone there to be sick.

He wasn’t there.

As is often the case with these country house mysteries, a breakthrough came by means of an unexpected observation from “below-stairs.” In this case, it was the lowly footman who found himself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when he admitted having directed Fuseli to the garden temple, a noted feature of the estate’s grounds, despite the gathering darkness.

The servant had tried to press upon him certain items for protection:

“What you bring that great big stick for?” asked Mr. Fuseli in his broken English.

“Why, Sir, our house dog is let loose after dark, and as he is rather fierce, you’d better take the stick.”

— — Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, ed. by George Somes Layard, with recollections by Miss Elizabeth Croft (1906)

Fuseli refused to take either lantern or cudgel, and dismissed the footman upon arriving at the garden fixture. When his hosts at last discovered him, he was still inside, cowering in a state of considerable disorder.

It seems he’d heard loud sniffing at the door soon after he’d been left at the temple, which turned into blood-curdling snarls and growling. Unable and unwilling to leave the temple, and so far removed from the house no one could hear his cries, Fuseli became terrified at the prospect of spending the night in the pagan temple, at the mercy of a demonic dog.

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

It was an anecdote Miss Croft declared:

“I am almost ashamed to repeat.”

Thank goodness for lack of scruples.


Portrait of the Regency – “A Miraculous Picture”

Much has been written of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830), self-taught prodigy and “Romantic Portraitist of the Regency.” These illustrations almost always mention Miss Elizabeth Croft, his close friend and supporter.

The days she spent with the Artist and his circle of intimate friends formed the best part of her life, she later declared. Her treasured memento was his acutely melancholic portrait of her dead half-brother (the famous suicide Sir Richard Croft, attending physician at Princess of Wales’ deathbed). Her legacy to us is the collection of anecdotes which Sir Thomas had passed on to her–a brilliant and intimate portrait of Regency society.

There was never anything lover-like between them, as far as anyone could tell. Indeed, Miss Croft served as something rather different to the Artist as she bustled about his studio. She was, as the saying goes, a managing female.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

‘Oh, dear!” said Miss Merrivale, stricken. “And I took such pains not to appear to be a managing female!’

‘Are you one?’

‘Yes, but how could I help it?’

— Frederica, by Georgette Heyer

As Sir Thomas Lawrence was in such demand as Europe’s portrait painter, he frequently got behind in his work. Miss Croft was well aware others thought he was indolent and unproductive:

During all this period I can with truth report that he painted from sunrise to sunset, except in the hours that he devoted to the correction of engravings and those of his hurried meals..

— from “Recollections of the Artist,” by Miss Elizabeth Croft, SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE’S LETTER-BAG, Edited by George Somes Layard, 1906

Take Isabella Wolff’s portrait, twelve years in the making.  The sitter was the wife of a Danish official in London, Jens Wolff. She, along with her sisters, had been members of Miss Croft’s circle.  When one of Isabella’s sisters complained about the time it was taking to finish Isabella’s portrait, the artist, stung, promised to finish it as soon as the sitter could be persuaded to return to London.

This she did, but after only a few sittings she was off again, before the portrait could be completed. What remained was the most intricate part of the painting–executing the folds of Mrs. Wolff’s white satin dress. This last was accomplished by reason of Miss Croft donning the “drapery” and sitting for the remainder of the portrait.

Mrs. Jens Wolff by Lawrence

One can only imagine Miss Croft’s gentle impatience.

Right–I‘ll wear the bloody thing.

In the end, Miss Croft was justly proud of her participation, reporting how Mrs. Wolff’s portrait had been given a place of honor at an 1815 exhibition alongside those of Wellington, Blucher and Platoff. The newspapers, she recalled, all agreed that “the lady reading by the lamplight was indeed a miraculous picture.”