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Michael Dahl’s Petworth ‘Beauties’ No Longer Standing Legless
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Michael Dahl’s Petworth ‘Beauties’
No Longer Standing Legless


Two of the Petworth ‘Beauties’, formerly amputated due to the whims of an Earl, are now restored to their former glory. Conservation has been approved by the National Trust, with generous support from Philip Mould & Company.

Conservators work on Lady Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire

Conservators work on Michael Dahl's portrait of Lady Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire

Two exquisitely painted portraits, the so-called ‘Petworth Beauties’, by the Baroque artist Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743) are to go on display at Tate Britain as part of their upcoming exhibition, British Baroque: Power and Illusion (5th February – 19th April).

The two portraits come from the collection at Petworth House [National Trust], originally the southern seat of the influential Percy family and later an exemplary showcase of the English-Baroque having been transformed in the late-17th century by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1667-1722) into an ostentatiously dramatic palace.

Dahl, a prominent Swedish artist who worked primarily in England for the duration of his career, was commissioned to paint the portraits of leading women at the late-Stuart court, with the aim of displaying them in the newly-conceived ‘Beauty Room’ at Petworth; work on which commenced in 1688.

The two portraits that are destined for the Tate exhibition depict Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674-1725) (c.1696) and Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1665-1733)(c.1690s). The two women were prominent figures at the Courts of King William and Queen Mary and later Queen Anne and highly respected women among the upper echelons of English aristocratic society. Their beauty was of course the dominant attribute of choice when considering the conception of the ‘Beauty room’ at Petworth and thus Dahl was the clear artist of choice, having established himself as the go-to painter of high society.
The Earl

The Earl

'I will cut off their legs'

Curiously, but also regrettably, George O’Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), Petworth’s owner in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, had the legs of Lady Russell and Lady Somerset cut off and folded over the reverse of the canvas stretcher to make way for new paintings underneath them in the ‘Beauty room’ at Petworth.

Baroque, feminine beauty was compromised in favour of battle commemoration; the portraits reduced sizes from full-lengths to three-quarter-lengths having been justified by the Earl in order to have more hanging space for his pictures of Waterloo. The Earl’s now infamous exclamation ‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats’ has now come to define the context surrounding this unfortunate decision.

Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674-1725) (c.1696)

Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674-1725) (c.1696)

Michael Dahl
Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1665-1733)(c.1690s)

Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1665-1733)(c.1690s)

Michael Dahl
Fortunately for posterity, those ordered to carry out the butchery of the splendid Dahl paintings did not discard the bottom sections of the canvasses but instead affixed them rather crudely with tacks and nails to the reverse side, hidden from view, but nonetheless lying in wait in case future custodians of Petworth wished to reaffix the lady’s legs.

This time has now arrived, and we are delighted to announce that with generous support from Philip Mould & Company, the National Trust have been able to carry out the restoration process and return the Duchesses to their former grandeur. J. Dimond Conservation have painstakingly restored the works and they will be on display at Tate Britain from Wednesday 5th February.
English Baroque: Power and Illusion

British Baroque: Power and Illusion will be at Tate Briatin from 5th February - 19th April

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