My Favourite Painting: George Plumptre

The chief executive of the NGS — and a regular contributor to Country Life — chooses a family portrait which hangs in his family home.

George Plumptre on Frances, Lady Bridges by Frances Cotes

‘I think favouritism needs familiarity and, all my life, I have loved this portrait of my ancestor, Fanny, as it hangs in the drawing room of my family home in Kent.

‘I enjoy so many things about it: the composition, her elegant pose, the glow in her cheek, the gorgeous fabric of her dress. Fanny was a glamorous asset: she brought the ancient FitzWalter barony to our family.

‘Her husband, Sir Brook Bridges, was a great patron of the Arts and they had 13 children. One, Elizabeth, married Jane Austen’s brother Edward. Another, Sophia, married William Deedes, a direct ancestor of my mother, born Margaret Deedes.’

George Plumptre is chief executive of the National Garden Scheme.

John McEwen comments on Frances, Lady Bridges

Francis Cotes was the son of a London apothecary and trained under the portraitist George Knapton (1698–1778), who had visited Italy and was an Old Masters expert. His first studio was in his father’s Cork Street premises, where he drew portraits in pastel, making his own chalk sticks with the bene-fit of his father’s chemical knowledge. It was when he switched to oil painting that his career blossomed, financially aided by successfully marketing his portraits as prints to reach a wider audience.

From 1746, Cotes also used a specialist ‘drapery painter’, Peter Toms, to paint the sitter’s clothes, a common practice. He was soon vying for commissions with his contemporaries Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

Frances, Lady Bridges, born Fowler (1746–1825), was heiress to the FitzWalter barony by writ, but the claim was in abeyance during her lifetime. Her husband, Sir Brook Bridges, 3rd Bt, of Goodnestone Park (one of only three Kent gardens in the current national The Good Gardens Guide) was an embodiment of the cultivated 18th-century landowner, his taste refined by the Grand Tour to Italy as the culmination of a Classical education.

Flawless skin and a porcelain complexion were hallmarks of a lady. Pink was fashionable for effect, here accompanied by sash and stole in matching silk of palest green, like leaves to a rose.

The Italianate plinth salutes Classicism, its cracked stone adding to the sweet air of melancholy, further suggested by the turning tree and evening light. The inscription is a later addition.

Reynolds founded the Royal Academy the same year that this portrait was painted, with Cotes among 33 founder members. Two years later, Cotes died, poisoned by a gallstone remedy.