Mary Tourle: a portrait at Preston Manor

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Adapted from the article “The Iconography of Wealth & Privilege: a portrait of Mary Tourle (1775-1846) of Lewes at Preston Manor” by Kay Diggens, The Royal Pavilion Review, 1994 Number 1

As one gazes around the grand and imposing entrance hall of Preston Manor, it is difficult to ignore the three large family portraits which dominate the eastern end. Pausing to admire these works, it is easy to overlook the comparatively small and, perhaps, rather dowdy portrait of Mary Tourle of Lewes (1775-1856) which hangs between those of Lady Thomas-Stanford and her half-sister Diana.

Portrait of Mary Tourle (1802), PM090062
Portrait of Mary Tourle, 1802, PM090062

Mary and the Stanfords

Mary became the second wife of William Stanford in 1802, and bore him seven children. Aside from these few facts, little information has been discovered about her life, or about the history of this painting, Nevertheless, overshadowed as it may be, this single portrait says as much about its particular circumstances of production as the more eye-catching, and more readily identifiable tributes to the wealth and social importance of the Stanfords which surround it.

William Stanford (1764-1841) acquired Preston Manor in 1794. His family had been tenant farmers throughout Sussex for over 400 years, and were connected with the manor farm from 1758. Thus at the age of thirty William found himself to be the lord of the manor and a very wealthy man. In 1808, he was appointed High Sheriff, a position of great honour, which indicates the status which the Stanford family had been able to attain in such a short period of time.

It is not surprising, therefore, that William thought it appropriate to commission portraits of himself and his wife, in order to proclaim their standing within the local community. Many well-to-do families recorded important family events such as marriages, births and deaths in this way, and that might also include prestigious civic appointments.

The politics of portraiture

Examining Mary’s costume, it seems likely that the portrait was painted late in the 1820s, when she and her husband were firmly established at Preston Manor. The portrait would seem to express the Stanford’s confidence, as well as their immense social success. However, the fact that the painter remains anonymous is perhaps rather problematic.

It was possible to gain a degree of social eclat if one commissioned a well-known portrait painter. Through his reputation, a family that had only recently climbed the social ladder might enjoy the distinction of their painting being issued from the same studio that had produced works currently hanging in the homes of more illustrious patrons.

Portrait of Diana MacDonald, James Jebusa Shannon, 1894, PM090058
Portrait of Diana MacDonald, James Jebusa Shannon, 1894, PM090058

The consideration that an artist’s reputation reflected the importance of the sitter may lie, at least in part, behind the choice of Sir William Orpen or Sir James Jebusa Shannon for the later portraits of Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford and Diana Macdonald. Yet the fact that Mary Tourle’s portrait was not commissioned of a well known artist does not necessarily reflect adversely upon her social standing: it suggests rather that Mr and Mrs William Stanford expected their portraits to achieve a very different set of ends to those of subsequent generations.



It would have been a simple task to find a suitable artist for the job. Many critics of the day noted, often with disdain, that portrait painting was a flourishing business, both in London and fashionable provincial centres such as Bath and Brighton. In the ten years between 1824 and 1833 for example, portraits outnumbered all other categories of painting exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions on all but one occasion.

In 1846, Thackeray commented upon ‘those geniuses who frequent the thoroughfares of the town’ and made a living from copying old masters and reproducing their style in numerous cheap portraits. While the hordes who flocked to these journeymen painters required flattery and demanded: ‘to have their coat, waistcoat, and breeches, their muslin dresses, silks, sophas, and settees…all that belongs to them, and nothing else painted’, the swift fluctuations of public opinion would rapidly condemn such superficial images to ‘the domain of the absurd’ (Thackeray, 1841). Mary Tourle’s portrait appears to bear this problem of balancing fashion and posterity very much in mind.

Historical costume

Dressed in sombre black, the subject wears a high-waisted gown with the rounded shoulders and puffed leg of mutton sleeves popular at this time. Mary also wears the wide-brimmed hat with ostrich feathers seen frequently in the works of Thomas Lawrence. In 1827 Lawrence exhibited Lady Peel at the Royal Academy. The sitter was the wife of Sir Robert Peel, who had bought Rubens’ portrait of Susanna Fourment, also known as the Chapeau de Paille, in 1822. This portrait was the apparent inspiration for Lawrence’s picture.

The painting of Susanna Fourment appealed to the taste for historical masquerade costume known as ‘Van Dyck’ dress, which had developed during the eighteenth century, and which used another portrait by Rubens’ second wife as its source. This picture was owned at the time by Sir Horace Walpole, and was believed to depict Rubens’ second wife Helene. It was also though to have been painted, not by Rubens, but by Van Dyck himself. The costumes which evolved from this painting in particular were loosely based upon seventeenth-century dress and appeared in various forms in hundreds of portraits of the later eighteenth century.

The extent to which Rubens’ work still prevailed in the nineteenth century may be seen in the carefully selected details and accessories, such as hats, necklaces, cuffs and collars, to be found in many fashionable works of the time. Moreover, the arrivals of the Chapeau de Paille in England in 1823 caused such a sensation that crowds of reputedly tens of thousands thronged the Old Bond Street area of London, where the painting was on public display for a half crown admission.

In the context, it would not be surprising if Mary Tourle had insisted upon references to such an important cultural event, in order to assert how up to date she was. To this end, perhaps, it is possible to trace other influences which remind the on-looker of works such as Ingres’s Marcotte de Sainte Marie (1826), or Sir Martin Archer Shee’s Elizabeth, Duchess of Rutland (c. 1820), in which each subject sports voluminous sleeves, drawn close at the wrist, and toys with an eye-glass on a chain which, draped across the breast, catches the viewer’s attention with its large gilded links. As you can see in the portrait, Mary Tourle likewise holds a magnifying glass which is supported from a long chain around her neck.

A Different Story?

Whilst it is possible to connect the portrait of Mary Tourle with certain high-fashion trends and conventions operating during the first decades of the nineteenth century, there are, however, other incongruities which suggest another tradition – one which had no relation to the fripperies and transience of fashion. These elements, expressed in the muted colour scheme, the flattening of pictorial space, and Mary’s striking white collar and cuffs, all suggest a much older style of painting. Keeping in mind the fairly loose interpretation of historical costume which was normal practise at this time, Mary Tourle’s attire would have been considered sufficiently historically correct to evoke Elizabethan costume. The portrait resembles the effigies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods described by David Piper, and the Stanfords’ use of the format arguably belongs to this older iconographic tradition of presenting the subject as a symbol of rank and power.

Historical connections

As a relatively new family the Stanfords did not have the sense of wealth and status enjoyed by those houses which possessed large collections of family portraits: they could not remind visitors to Preston Manor of their illustrious heritage. Some patrons might chose to ‘fill in the gaps’ by commissioning imaginary likenesses of long-deceased forbears, or highlighting family connections by purchasing, and if necessary renaming, portraits already in existence (as did Lady Thomas-Stanford in collecting paintings of the Cavendish family who were related to her first husband, Vere Fane-Benett).

Henry Cavendish, c1670, PM090006
Henry Cavendish, c1670, PM090006

Others, like Mary Tourle, appeared in costume which suggested that the family could trace itself back to Tudor times. Such a portrait was designed to blend in with existing works in the family gallery and would, therefore, attempt, to a certain extent, to eschew telltale signs of contemporary dress. In addition, if we consider the fact that a copy of Holbein’s Anne of Cleves had been in the house since 1788, it would perhaps lend a degree of authenticity to the association with Henry VIII’s wife, which the family liked to foster, if family members were portrayed in a sympathetic style.


It might also give the subject an appearance suitable for the founding generation of what might become a new Sussex dynasty. In this respect, the portrait of Mary Tourle can be treated as looking both backwards towards an imagined past, and forwards to a possible future. Looking at Lady Thomas-Stanford’s portrait, it is arguable that these hopes were achieved, the two women bearing a strong family resemblance.

The portrait speaks

Mary’s portrait also demonstrates the importance of presenting an elegant face that exudes an aura of superiority and dominance. Images such as Mary Tourle elevate the subject out of the normal conditions of existence, transforming the outward aspect into a symbol of wealth, social position, achievement, and even ambition. The surface of the painting is treated as if it were a heraldic device; a public declaration of family pride, rather than an exploration of an individual’s personality.

Portrait of William Stanford 1764 - 1841, 1808, PM090061
Portrait of William Stanford 1764 – 1841,
1808, PM090061
The relationship between artist and sitter

In addition to this submergence of the sitter’s character, the presence of the artist is carefully excluded: we do not need to know his identity in order to understand or appreciate this work, for we are invited to regard this image as a testament to Mary Tourle’s power over us in this house and, through her husband, in the wider community – not as a representation of the painter’s personal view of the subject before him.

With the artist’s role kept so firmly subservient to his patron in this way, it would seem that the Stanfords’ ability to command extended even as far as the creative process undertaken in this commission. The commonly accepted divisions and relationships around which a portrait is constructed do not therefore seem to apply here. However, a further study of the portrait in its present location will show that within the confines of the Preston Manor estate, in their private lives, normal relations existed between master and servant, husband and wife.

If we compare Mary’s portrait with that of her husband, it is clear that she conforms to the feminine ideal of the demure and self-contained matriarch. While both images tend to flatten the depth of pictorial space in order to suggest an archaic style, Mary is pushed forward out towards the viewer and the household of which she is in control, while her husband is not constrained in this manner.

Wearing more striking, colourful attire, and a formal powdered wig in place of his own hair, William Stanford’s implied intercourse with the world of public affairs is further suggested by the inkstand beside him, and the opening of the background on to a suggested landscape behind. For William Stanford, the realms of public and private are divided merely by a flexible curtain which billows in the breeze and which, as an important accoutrement of state portraiture, emphasises his civic stature.

Mary Tourle, however, is firmly fixed within the confines of the interior space, within which she controls the interplay of symbols and meanings – indeed, as far as her portrait is concerned, the world which is glimpsed from around the edges of this image is a blank wall, confining her movements inside the frame, just as the limits of decorous wifely behaviour confine her on the outside.

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