LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

My Friends and Acquaintance
Lady Blessington I

Vol I Contents
Charles Lamb I
Charles Lamb II
Charles Lamb III
Charles Lamb IV
Charles Lamb V
Charles Lamb VI
Charles Lamb VII
Charles Lamb VIII
Charles Lamb IX
Charles Lamb X
Thomas Campbell I
Thomas Campbell II
Thomas Campbell III
Thomas Campbell IV
Thomas Campbell V
Thomas Campbell VI
Thomas Campbell VII
‣ Lady Blessington I
Lady Blessington II
Lady Blessington III
Lady Blessington IV
Lady Blessington V
R. Plumer Ward I
R. Plumer Ward II
R. Plumer Ward III
R. Plumer Ward IV
R. Plumer Ward V
R. Plumer Ward VI
Appendix vol I
Vol II Contents
R. Plumer Ward VII
R. Plumer Ward VIII
R. Plumer Ward IX
R. Plumer Ward X
R. Plumer Ward XI
R. Plumer Ward XII
R. Plumer Ward XIII
R. Plumer Ward XIV
R. Plumer Ward XV
R. Plumer Ward XVI
R. Plumer Ward XVII
R. Plumer Ward XVIII
R. Plumer Ward XIX
R. Plumer Ward XX
R. Plumer Ward XXI
R. Plumer Ward XXII
R. Plumer Ward XXIII
Horace & James Smith I
Horace & James Smith II
William Hazlitt I
William Hazlitt II
William Hazlitt III
William Hazlitt IV
William Hazlitt V
William Hazlitt VI
William Hazlitt VII
William Hazlitt VIII
Appendix vol II
Vol III Contents
William Hazlitt IX
William Hazlitt X
William Hazlitt XI
William Hazlitt XII
William Hazlitt XIII
William Hazlitt XIV
William Hazlitt XV
William Hazlitt XVI
William Hazlitt XVII
William Hazlitt XVIII
William Hazlitt XIX
William Hazlitt XX
William Hazlitt XXI
William Hazlitt XXII
William Hazlitt XXIII
William Hazlitt XXIV
William Hazlitt XXV
William Hazlitt XXVI
Laman Blanchard I
Laman Blanchard II
Laman Blanchard III
Laman Blanchard IV
Laman Blanchard V
Laman Blanchard VI
Laman Blanchard VII
Laman Blanchard VIII
R & T Sheridan I
R & T Sheridan II
R & T Sheridan III
R & T Sheridan IV
R & T Sheridan V
R & T Sheridan VI
R & T Sheridan VII
R & T Sheridan VIII
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I first saw Lady Blessington under circumstances sufficiently characteristic of her extraordinary personal beauty at the period in question—about five or six and twenty years ago—to excuse my referring to them somewhat in detail, though they do not fall within the immediate scope of these Recollections; for it was not till several years afterwards that I became personally acquainted with the subject of them. It was on the opening day of that Royal Academy Exhibition which contained Lawrence’s celebrated portrait of Lady Blessington—one of the very finest he ever painted, and univer-
sally known by the numerous engravings that have since been made from it. In glancing hastily round the room on first entering, I had duly admired this exquisite portrait, as approaching very near to the perfection of the art, though (as I conceived) by no means reaching it, for there were points in the picture which struck me as inconsistent with others that were also present. Yet I could not, except as a vague theory, lay the apparent discrepancies at the door of the artist. They might belong to the original; though I more than doubted this explanation of them; for there are certain qualities and attributes which necessarily imply the absence of certain others, and consequently of their corresponding expressions.

Presently, on returning to this portrait, I saw standing before it, as if on purpose to confirm my theory, the lovely original. She was leaning on the arm of her husband, Lord Blessington, while he was gazing in fond admiration on the portrait. And then I saw how impossible it is for an artist to “flatter” a really beautiful woman, and that, in attempting to do so, he is certain, however
skilful, to fall into the error of blending incompatible expressions in the same face; as in fact even
Lawrence’s portraits of celebrated “beauties” invariably do. He was either not content to represent them as they really were, or incapable of doing so. They one and all (and the one now in question more than most others) include an artificial and meretricious character, which is wholly incompatible with the presence of perfect female beauty, either of form or expression.

I have seen no other instance so striking, of the inferiority of art to nature when the latter reaches the ideal standard, as in this celebrated portrait of Lady Blessington. As the original stood before it on the occasion I have alluded to, she fairly “killed” the copy, and this no less in the individual details than in the general effect. Moreover, what I had believed to be errors and shortcomings in the picture were wholly absent in the original. There is about the former a consciousness, a “pretension,” a leaning forward, and a looking forth, as if to claim or court notice and admiration, of which there was no touch in the latter.


So strong was the impression made upon my mind by this first sight of one of the loveliest women of her day, that, although it is five or six and twenty years ago, I could at this moment place my foot on the spot where she stood, and before which her portrait hung—a little to the left of the door as you entered the great room of the old Royal Academy.

I have never since beheld so pure and perfect a vision of female loveliness, in what I conceive to be its most perfect phase, that, namely, in which intellect does not predominate over form, feature, complexion, and the other physical attributes of female beauty, but only serves to heighten, purify, and irradiate them; and it is this class of beauty which cannot be equalled on canvas.

There is another class of beauty which may be, and which, indeed, often is, surpassed by the painter’s art. This is the class formerly adopted by Westall as the ideal of female beauty, but now grown obsolete by the progress of a more pure, because a more natural, taste in art. This class of face, though not uncommon in nature, and more prevalent among ourselves than in any other modern
people, may readily be surpassed by art, and often is so, because its beauty is that of form merely. It is not only distinct from expression, but incompatible with it, or nearly so—with what is understood by expression in a general sense; incompatible, because if expression of any complicated kind be given to it, the perfection of form is changed, and its beauty for the time being dissipated.

This class of beauty was not the ideal of the ancients; still less of the great Italian masters. There is no touch of it in any of those antique remains that are recognised as typical of the goddess of beauty—least of all in the most famous of all—the Venus dei Medici.

Some of Correggio’s heads are the highest examples in existence of the true ideal of female beauty—the beauty of expression; but there is not one of them that is not surpassed by actual nature at any given time. This was the ideal of Lawrence. It was this which he tried to surpass whenever it came before him, instead of merely to represent it; and the result was that the more signal the instance which presented itself to him, the
more signally he failed,—by giving that peculiar expression (not to be safely described) which is incompatible with any ideal of female beauty, because incompatible with, the simultaneous existence of those intellectual and moral qualities on which this highest phase of female beauty depends. And he never failed more signally than in the celebrated portrait which has called forth these remarks,—a portrait which owes its celebrity to the fiat of those who had not seen the original at the time it was painted.

At this time Lady Blessington was about six-and-twenty years of age; but there was about her face, together with that beaming intelligence which rarely shows itself upon the countenance till that period of life, a bloom and freshness which as rarely survive early youth, and a total absence of those undefinable marks which thought and feeling still more rarely fail to leave behind them. Unlike all other beautiful faces that I have seen, hers was, at the time of which I speak, neither a history nor a prophecy; not a book to read and study, a problem to solve, or a mystery to speculate upon, but a star to
kneel before and worship—a picture to gaze upon and admire—a flower the fragrance of which seemed to reach and penetrate you from a distance, by the mere looking upon it;—in short, an end and a consummation in itself, not a promise of anything else.

Lady Blessington had not, at the period I have just spoken of, done anything to distinguish herself in the literary world; though the fine taste in art and the splendid hospitalities of her husband, and her own personal attractions and intellectual fascinations, had already made their residence in St. James’s Square the resort of all that was most conspicuous in art, literature, and social and political distinction. It would be difficult to name any one among the many remarkable men of that day (namely, from 1818, when her marriage with Lord Blessington took place, to 1822, when they went abroad to reside for several years—indeed, until Lord Blessington’s death in 1829) who then enjoyed, or have since acquired, a European reputation, with whom Lady Blessington was not on terms of social intimacy, which amounted in almost every case to a certain mild and subdued phase
of personal friendship—that only friendship which the progress of modern civilization has left among us—that, namely, which may subsist between man and woman.

A tithe only of the names of those who ranked among Lady Blessington’s friends at this period, and who remained such during their respective lives, would serve to show that her attractions were not those of mere beauty, or of mere wealth and station. Quite as little were they those of intellectual supremacy or literary distinction; for at this period she had acquired none of the latter, and at no time did she possess the former. In fact, it was the mediocrity of her talents which secured and maintained for Lady Blessington that unique position which she held in the literary and social world of London during the twenty years following her husband’s death. Not that she could ever have compassed, much less have maintained that position, unassisted by the rank and wealth which her marriage with Lord Blessington gave her, or even in the absence of that personal beauty which lent the crowning prestige and the completing charm to her other attractions. But none of these, nor all of
them united, would have enabled her to gain and keep the unparalleled position she held for the twenty years preceding her death, as the centre of all that was brilliant in the intellect, and distinguished in the literary, political, and social life of London, had she not possessed that indefinable charm of manner and personal bearing which was but the outward expression of a spirit good and beautiful in itself, and therefore intensely sympathizing with all that is good and beautiful in all things. The talisman possessed by Lady Blessington, and which drew around her all that was bright and rich in intellect and in heart, was that “blest condition” of temperament and of spirit which, for the time being, engendered its like in all who came within the scope of its influence. Her rank and wealth, her beauty and celebrity, did but attract votaries to the outer precincts of the temple, many of whom only came to admire and wonder, or to smile and depreciate, as the case might be. But once within the influence of the spell, all were changed into worshippers, because all felt the presence of the deity—all were penetrated by that atmosphere of mingled goodness and sweetness
which beamed forth in her bright smiles, became musical in the modulations of Her happy voice, or melted into the heart at her cordial words.

If there never was a woman more truly “fascinating” than Lady Blessington, it was because there never was one who made less effort to be so. Not that she did not desire to please: no woman desired it more. But she never tried to do so—never felt that she was doing so—never (so to speak) cared whether she did so or not. There was an abandon about her,—partly attributable to temperament, partly to her birth and country, and partly, no doubt, to her consciousness of great personal beauty,—which, in any woman less happily constituted, would have degenerated into something bordering on vulgarity. But in her it was so tempered by sweetness of disposition, and so kept in check by an exquisite social tact, as well as by natural good breeding as contradistinguished from artificial—in other words, a real sympathy, not an affected one, with the feelings of others—that it formed the chief charm and attraction of her character and bearing.