My Favourite Painting: The Duchess of Rutland

The Duchess of Rutland chooses a portrait of the woman who was her most eminent predecessor.

The Duchess of Rutland on Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Rutland by George Sanders

‘Long before I became aware of how important Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Rutland was to the history of Belvoir — her vision of the castle is the one we see today — I was drawn to this image of a beautiful young woman and, in fact, used it as inspiration for my wedding dress. I didn’t copy it, mine was bought off the peg, but it was a similar high-waisted confection of silk voile and lace.

‘She inspired me then and, 30 years later, I pass her every day and she inspires me still.’

The Duchess of Rutland is a podcaster and writer. Her book The Accidental Duchess is out now (Pan Macmillan, £22).

Charlotte Mullins on Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Rutland

Regency aristocrat Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Rutland, was described by the Gentleman’s Magazine as ‘one of the brightest ornaments of the English Court’. Aged 18, she moved from Castle Howard in North Yorkshire to Belvoir in Leicestershire to marry the 5th Duke, John Manners. Belvoir may have offered a ‘beautiful view’, but the existing Charles II house was squat and dull. The Duchess set about renovating it with Windsor Castle’s young architect James Wyatt, adding towers, parapets and crenellations to create the imposing castle that still exists today.

Her portrait by George Sanders shows her standing by a window in a voluminous white satin gown and oversized blue cloak. Her dark ringlets frame her face and her cheeks glow. She is a Society beauty, but she is also hard at work. In her left hand is a large, leather-bound book and in her right a stylus, as if she has just stopped working on her plans for the castle. Behind her, we glimpse the fruits of her labour — a new parapet thronged with fashionable ladies in feathered hats, who look out over the rolling grounds.

Little is known about the fashionable painter Sanders. Scottish by birth, he moved to London in the early 1800s and initially worked as a miniaturist before branching out into full-scale portraiture. He was much in demand and aristocratic sitters could spend upwards of 500 guineas on a portrait — the equivalent of about £25,000 now. But, as Country Life noted in 1953, ‘it is well known how soon the “bubble reputation” disperses upon the death of an artist’.

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