Museum Tales 4: Portrait of Mrs Betsey Chatfield

Portrait of Mrs Betsey Chatfield

Her eyes are the most liquid pools of hazel with glints of tiger-yellow in the iris. She knows this. She knows the effect her eyes have on all of them. And they all want to know what it’s like, what she does. She knows that too. Outwardly she makes sure she stays demure, respectable. She has even taken his name. She is often told she looks like Perdita Robinson, the Prince of Wales’ amour. But she is more beautiful than Perdita, for all her column inches in the Illustrated News and cartoons of her by James Gillray. Who knows? She may even take her place one day. Not many people know this, but Perdita came to visit her after she gave birth to Georgy, in her own carriage and horses, after the Duke of Bessborough had up and taken his leave and married that deaf-mute aristocrat of his family’s choosing. Oh how he had wronged her! So close they had been, she thought. She had wanted to say to him, “Tell her I owe her one. And I don’t forget.”  And so she doesn’t forget. And one day she will be at the Drury Lane Ballrooms, round the corner from the theatre, where she hears he still likes to visit after a session in Parliament with the peers. One day she will be waiting for him, holding Georgy by the hand. And she will show him Georgy, yes she will. And he’ll soon see the Ponsonby features in Georgy’s face, make no mistake. But not over much. The child’s trusting expression doesn’t mirror that conceited long nose and the arrogant chin, not at all. And so, the Duke might be relieved. Then, she could maybe persuade him to give her an introduction to the King himself and to be presented at court. Perhaps even received by the Queen. She must think of her future.

But, she is getting ahead of herself. It’s Chatfield who has protected her, who has raised her from the gutter when she was turned out of King’s Place. It was Chatfield who commissioned this portrait she is sitting for. She can see she is having the same effect on the painter, who can hardly drag his gaze from hers, as she has on all men. He’s someone she’s never heard of. Opie. She shrugs her shoulders slightly. Schooled after Reynolds, apparently. He has a face like a moon-calf, his lower lip glistens as he strokes paint on to the canvas, and he has eyes with dark fringes reminiscent of the Drury Lane theatre curtains. Mooncalf! His grey-blue eyes hardly dare to meet hers. And yet, for the fleeting second that they do, a blaze of longing shoots from them, then is just as quickly extinguished. They say he has just painted Elizabeth Armistead’s portrait. It’s her Bessborough sees now. That she, Betsey, should have lost him to that arch-courtesan! Apparently the Armistead has Charles James Fox, who is trying to abolish slavery, and half the Whig party after her too. She needn’t give herself so many airs. She only started out in King’s Place, those curving rows of tall-columned  houses, who behind their elegant white facades are all stuffed with painted women servicing the entire Houses of Parliament.

Betsey looks down at her ring. He insisted  she wear one. Georgy is at school now. She’s not sure if she’ll see him again. Chatfield took exception to having the distinctive Bessborough features in the house. He insisted she earn her keep. He is out to all hours, running the Haymarket Theatre Company, and that means she can receive whichever guests she wants. So far, several Earls, an Archduke and two of the King’s nephews. After the theatre, he comes in and she sends them to his poker table, by the roaring fire in the Green Room. And he takes their remaining money off them that she hasn’t had herself. Then he sends them home with the birds singing in Berkeley Square, and they come back the next evening she is at home, eager to win it all back. That’s how the two of them can afford to keep their house and Georgy at school. Sometimes she’ll drive past a noble lady’s carriage in Hyde Park, whose husband has had to hand over her jewellery for his gambling. They’ll bow to each other in their white pudding-bag hats as the carriages pass. And Betsey laughs. Oh how she laughs. And other times she dreams of other lives. She dreams of being the painter’s wife. She has an unexplained fever at the moment and his moon calf face often drifts in and out of focus. She dreams of other lives, and she dreams of being in the Drury Lane dressing room and the time she tore off someone’s wig for calling her a trollop, and she dreams of those who will come after Chatfield. She! who started out with so little and who has made her mark profiting from the misfortunes of the wealthy and titled. And she will mime the words: “You tell her from me I owe her one. And I don’t forget.”

Jasmine Sharif


Inspiration: John Opie’s ‘Portrait of Mrs  Betsey Chatfield,’ on the theme of “Dressing The Part”.