Elizabeth Linley, Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia (1754-1792)
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Full-length portait of Mrs Elizabeth Linley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia. Elizabeth sits facing the left, with her left side in profile, on a very low stool before a pipe organ, which she plays. She wears a simple belted muslin dress with a gauze collar. There is an open book on the organ, but Elizabeth appears to stare at clouds and a ray of light that materialise above the organ. Behind, there are two young angels singing from a book they hold open.
Elizabeth Linley Sheridan was a famous singer and writer. Several of her contemporaries described her voice as divine and the theatre director David Garrick nicknamed her 'the Saint'. Joshua Reynolds elevated her character by showing her as St Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
The painting was made in 1775, at the height of Reynolds's career. Fanny Burney reported seeing the painting in Reynolds's studio on 28 February 1775 (see Mannings and Postle, 2000: 412). It shows his tendency to intellectualise the art of portraiture by posing his sitters in the guise of mythological or classical figures. He painted a picture of St Cecilia for Sir Watkin Wynn's music room (now Los Angeles Country Museum), which may also show Elizabeth. Reynold's may have felt the Waddesdon portrait was a better painting, as he did not exhibit Wynn's painting in 1774 as originally planned. Instead, he showed this painting at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1775. It has been suggested that the square format of the Waddesdon painting means it was also painted to be a decorative panel. The clouds give the painting a Baroque feel, which Reynolds exploited in many of his paintings. The colouring is Venetian in tone. The composition relates to 17th-century paintings by Rubens and Poussin.
St Cecilia was a Roman woman of the 3rd C BCE, who became popular due to a late 5th-century legend that she maintained her virginity, refused to perform a sacrifice, and was extremely difficult to kill. She became patron saint of music from the 16th century on because in her Acts there is the line 'as the organs (at her wedding feast) were playing, Cecilia sung (in her heart) to the Lord, saying: may my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded'. Reynolds may have been referring to this line in his inclusion of the organ and angels.
Elizabeth was renowned for her sweet voice and beauty, although her voice could not compete with Italian singers. Her father, a musician from Bath, put her on the stage from an early age, and managed her career touring the country. He is reputed to have made £10,000 from her performances. The painting was made for Elizabeth's husband, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a playwright. Elizabeth had met Sheridan whilst fleeing the advances of a married suitor. They married in 1773, probably illegally, but the relationship cooled once Sheridan began seeing other women. Elizabeth stopped performing once married but continued to write music, plays and verse - sometimes uncredited - and supported her husband in his theatrical and political careers. His affairs continued, and finally caused their relationship to break down. Elizabeth later began an affair with Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763–1798) and bore him a child in 1782, dying only a few months later from tuberculosis.
Phillippa Plock, 2011
Dimensions (mm) / weight (mg)
1428 x 1155
1360 x 1100 - sight
Signature & date
not signed or dated
- Commissioned in 1775 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (b.1751, d.1816); acquired by Sheridan's attorney Henry Burgess around 1816; sold by Henry Burgess to the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice (b.1780, d.1863), after 1827; by descent to the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne Henry Fitzmaurice (b.1845, d.1927); sold by the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne to Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd, 20 November 1888; bought from Agnew's by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898) for £17,000, stock no.5051; inherited by his sister Alice de Rothschild (b.1847, d.1922); inherited by her great-nephew James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.
- Royal Academy Exhibition, 1775, London, no. 232 'A lady, in the character of S. Caecilia'
- British Institute Exhibition, 1813, London, no. 101
- South Kensington, 1867, London, no. 665)
- Royal Academy Exhibition, 1884, London, no. 209
- Waddesdon (National Trust)
- Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957
- E. Malone; The works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 3 vols; London; Cadell & Davies; 1798; vol. 1, p. lxviii.
- Anna Jameson; Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art; London; Saunders and Otley; 1844; pp. 329-330.
- Gustav Friedrich Waagen; Treasures of Art in Great Britain: being an account of the chief collections of paintings, drawings, sculptures, illuminated mss; 3 vols; London; John Murray; 1854-1857; vol. 3, p. 160.
- C R Leslie, T. Taylor; The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 2 vols; London; John Murray; 1865; vol. 2, pp. 551-53.
- Buckinghamshire Advertiser; 03 August 1889; p. 8.
- Algernon Graves, William Vine Cronin; A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 4 vols; London; Henry Graves; 1899-1901; vol. 3, pp. 887-90.
- Ellis Waterhouse, The English Pictures at Waddesdon Manor, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 54, August 1959, 49-56; p. 52.
- Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; pp. 86-88, cat no. 31, ill.
- Renate Prochno; Joshua Reynolds; Weinheim; VCH, Acta Humaniora; 1990; pp. 85-86.
- Martin Postle, Reynolds's Portraits at Waddesdon Manor: Painting for Posterity, Apollo, 139, 1994, 19-33; pp. 22, 24, fig. 5.
- Martin Postle; Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press; 1995; p. 20.
- Alan Chedzoy; Sheridan's Nightingale: the story of Elizabeth Linley; London; Allison & Busby Ltd (London); 1997; p. 146, ill.
- Linda Kelly; Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life; London; Sinclair - Stevenson; 1997; pp. 176-77, ill.
- Stella Tillyard; Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald, 1763-98; London; Chatto and Windus; 1997; pp. 194-95, ill.
- Stephanie Tasch; Studien zum weiblichen Rollenporträt in England von Anthonis van Dyck bis Joshua Reynolds; Weimar; Verlagll. Datenbank fuer Geisteswisswenchafter; 1999; p. 345, fig. 67.
- David Mannings, Martin Postle; Sir Joshua Reynolds: a Complete Catalogue of his Paintings; 2 vols; London; Yale University Press; 2000; p. 412, no. 1614, fig. 1154.
- Robyn Asleson; Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776-1812; London; Yale University Press; 2003; p. 43.
- Gill Perry; Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820; New Haven, London; The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press; 2007; p. 153, fig. 112.
- Jan Blanc; Van Gogh; Paris; Citadelles et Hazenod; 2017; p. 366, ill.
- Elizabeth Sheridan, Sitter
- Miss Coote Purdon, possibly pictured
Person as Subject
- Objects/Musical Instruments/Organ
- Religion/Biblical Figures & Saints/Angel
- Everyday Life/Entertainment/Music Making
- Nature, Landscape & The Elements/Clouds
- Religion/Biblical Figures & Saints/Saint Cecilia
- Allegory & Personifications/Music