Zoffany has portrayed Mary Oswald at the age of about 50. Probably born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was the only child of Alexander Ramsay, a Glasgow-born merchant who settled in Jamaica, acquiring plantations there and in the South American colonies. In 1750, she married Richard Oswald, a Scottish entrepreneur, merchant, shipowner and slave trader who provided army supplies.
This portrait is one of Zoffany’s largest paintings and was probably commissioned to hang in the Oswald’s stately home of Auchincruive, three miles from Ayr in Scotland. Mrs Oswald’s costume and hairstyle suggest a date in the early 1760s. It was unusual for Zoffany to portray a female sitter on her own. He appears to have detected little zest for life in Mrs Oswald, and her pose in the wild natural setting seems only to emphasise her solitude.
Zoffany has portrayed Mary Oswald (about 1713–1788) at the age of about 50. Probably born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was the only child of Alexander Ramsay, a Glasgow-born merchant who settled in Jamaica, acquiring plantations there and in the South American colonies. Mary not only succeeded to her father’s estates, but also to those of her two uncles. She was very wealthy and much of that wealth was gained through slavery.
In November 1750, Mary Ramsay married Richard Oswald, a Scottish entrepreneur, merchant, shipowner and slave trader. Oswald also negotiated the peace treaty with Benjamin Franklin that concluded the War of American Independence, during which Oswald had operated as an army supplies contractor.
This portrait is one of Zoffany’s largest paintings and was probably commissioned to hang in the Oswald’s Scottish house designed by the architect Robert Adam, on their estate of Auchincruive, three miles from Ayr. Oswald collected paintings and decorated his Scottish home with them. After his death, Mrs Oswald requested that the pictures displayed at Auchincruive should stay there, and this portrait by Zoffany remained in the house until 1922.
Mrs Oswald was almost certainly painted in Zoffany’s Covent Garden studio. Perhaps she was surprised on seeing the finished picture to find she was sitting on a boulder with a large slanting tree trunk beside her. She does not seem at ease in this wild setting. She wears a ribboned cap and lustrous blue taffeta dress with ruches, bows and wide lace sleeve ruffles and a lace ‘modesty piece’ above her neckline to protect her fashionably pale skin from the sun. She carries a flat straw hat over her arm, the same one that appears in Zoffany’s portrait of David Garrick and his Wife by his Temple to Shakespeare at Hampton (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven). The hat clearly did not belong to Mrs Oswald but came from Zoffany’s props box.
Zoffany appears to have detected little zest for life in Mrs Oswald and her pose and setting seem only to emphasise her solitude. There is a tradition that a portrait of Mr Oswald, who died in 1784, at about the time this portrait was painted, ‘exists behind a cloud’ in the picture. X-ray photographs show what was possibly a large male head sculpted as part of an urn in the top right area, later painted over with foliage. The male head is too large to have formed part of this composition and may be the remains of an earlier abandoned work.
The Scottish national poet, Robert Burns, who was Ayrshire born and bred, wrote that although he had not known Mrs Oswald personally, ‘I spent my early years in her neighbourhood, and among her servants and tenants I know that she was detested with the most heart-felt cordiality.’ In a very nasty ode to her memory, which was published in the Morning Star on 7 May 1789, he wrote: ‘View the weathered beldam’s face / Can thy keen inspection trace / Aught of humanity’s sweet melting grace?’ We must wonder whether Burns ever saw Zoffany’s portrait of Mrs Oswald.
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