Maid Marian, she wasn't . . .
I love George Stubbs (1724-1896), a British painter best known for his paintings of horses. His style was groundbreaking at the time because he often painted the horses against a plain background and because painstakingly correct anatomy was his passion. The works of many of his contemporaries did not focus on equine bone and muscle, but rather on the stylistic portrayal of the horse in action (with the horse’s legs doing things which were technically impossible).
Commissioned by royalty, Stubbs frequently painted his patron’s famous horses being led by a groom, and he painted the grooms as real people, with distinct faces and features. This was also unusual at the time. This brings me to the 1777 painting I’ve posted here---George Stubbs’ portrayal of John Musters, the High Sheriff of Nottingham, and his lovely wife, Sophia, in front of their home, Colwick Hall, in Nottinghamshire.
It’s hard not to be drawn to the image of a beautiful woman riding sidesaddle, and especially to a woman who is dressed in red. Mrs. Musters is wearing the fashionable riding garb of the day. She is donned in a black fur hat and a fitted red coat over a voluminous red skirt. Red riding costumes were popular amongst wealthy women in the 1700’s and were often modeled after their husband’s military uniforms, as shown in the image of the scandalous Lady Worsley, who sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) in June of 1779.
But what I find fascinating about the Sheriff of Nottingham and his wife, Sophia, is that until the 1930’s, they weren’t even in the picture, literally. Apparently Mrs. Musters, a celebrated beauty in London and Brighton society, was, like Lady Worsley, no Maid Marion. Presumably, Sophia made merry with the Prince of Wales, the future George IV (r. 1820-183), and when her husband learned of her infidelity, he had her painted out of the portrait. He commissioned a lesser artist to paint over both her figure and his, and add in grooms holding the horses.
So the painting remained for over 150 years, until it was restored in 1935. Someone must have discovered that lovely red dress under all those layers of oil…
I’ve only just started researching the personal life of Sophia Musters. There are several other portraits of her, including another one by Stubbs depicting her and her husband on horseback hunting. Mr. Musters had her painted out of that one, too (he replaced her with a portrait of his minister friend). I didn’t post that painting, because frankly without her, I think it isn’t that interesting (though the horses are lovely).
I look atSophia Muster and I see a striking woman, so elegantly dressed, perched sidesaddle atop an exquisite horse. I wonder what she was thinking, what her daily life was like, juggling the attentions of the Prince of Wales and her jealous husband . . . I wonder did her husband really love her, or was he embarrassed by the shame of the scandal, or a little bit of both?
That’s how research sucks me in. I start thinking about the people. I’ll spend way too many hours reading about Sophia Musters and other women who had their portraits made in their red riding habits. I should be writing. But some days, it’s just worth it.