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The singer, the painter & the randy politician

February 8, 2021

Ann Ford by Thomas Gainsborough


It’s 1760. Bath is booming. The agricultural revolution has increased the population, and created a new class of landed gentry, but the industrial revolution has hardly started. Coal is mined locally, the town is dirty and smoky, and there are no canals, let alone railways. Just stage coaches along the fast but dangerous new turnpikes, often past the bodies of hanged highwaymen. But Bath is fashionable. Wealthy gentry move their households to the first English spa town for the winter season. Gainsborough, facing stiff competition in London, decides to try his hand. This is his advertisement.

21-year-old Ann Ford had started singing privately at her father’s house in London, but has had to run away to Bath to sing in public. She is good, but the crowds titter at a woman behaving so outrageously. Philip Thicknesse, Gainsborough’s mentor, and later Ann’s husband, sets up a meeting, and soon the six foot painting stands in the front window of Gainsborough’s studio. The silvery dress attracts attention and the pose is exciting. No well brought up woman crosses her legs in public! As one future customer notes “a most extraordinary figure, handsome and bold; but I should be very sorry to have any one I loved set forth in that manner.” The viola da gamba, a man’s instrument, peeping out from behind the red curtain, refers to the latest scandal .

William Villiers, the 52-year-old Earl of Jersey, wants Ann, and offers her the extraordinary sum of £800 a year to be his mistress, with the promise of marriage when his ailing wife dies. Not only does she refuse, but when he tries to sabotage her first public concert in retaliation, she publishes a pamphlet, A Letter from Miss F—d to a Person of Distinction, defending her position.  Amazingly Villiers replies, and a juicy pamphlet war ensues – the Kim Kardashian of Bath scrapping with a publicity hungry politician. Fun for all, and great for Gainsborough. His career thrives.

The painting is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (click here).

Jim Thornton

Above mostly from Gainsbrough; a portrait by James Hamilton. Weidenfield & Nicholson, London 2017.

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