Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (British, Plympton 1723–1792 London)
Oil on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham, 1986
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 629
Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson was the only daughter and heiress of Richard Milles. This painting is one of two versions, the other is presumed to be the work still in the family of her descendants. Even before the first was finished, a second was begun, ordered for or by the sitter’s father. Reynolds charged his standard price of one hundred guineas for each, indicating that both were in great part if not entirely painted by him. The white muslin dress and black satin hat were the height of fashion.
The sitter was the only daughter and heiress of Richard Milles, and married Lewis Thomas Watson of Lees Court, Kent, in 1785. Watson was descended collaterally from the Earls of Rockingham, and his mother had been a granddaughter of the second Duke of Rutland and a daughter of Henry Pelham, a former prime minister. The first of the couple's four sons was born in 1792, and in 1795 Lewis Watson succeeded his father as second Baron Sondes of Lees Court and of Rockingham Castle, Northamptonshire. He died in 1806. Three years later, Lady Sondes married Brigadier General Sir Henry Tucker Montresor. She died in Kent in 1818.

Reynolds charged one hundred guineas, his standard price from 1782 on for a fifty-by-forty-inch half-length, for each of two portraits of Mrs. Watson. She sat for the artist seven times in March 1789 and twice in May. A fifty-guinea payment is recorded in March and another in July 1789. In May 1789 there was another payment in the same amount, for a “copy,” which was “paid by Mr. Milles,” and a like sum in July of that year under the heading “Mrs. Watson; given to Mr. Mills.” Watson or his father must have commissioned the first portrait. Before it was finished, a copy was ordered for or by the sitter’s father, Richard Milles, although it is unclear who paid for it. That the second picture was in great part if not entirely by Reynolds is indicated by the fact that he asked the same amount for it. Were it to have been painted by one of his assistants, the buyer would have been charged half, but even so, it should not be assumed that the draperies and the background in either picture were painted entirely by the artist himself. Reynolds sent the first version, presumed to be the work still at Rockingham Castle, to the Royal Academy in the latter half of May 1789. The present picture, having changed hands a number of times and having been acquired through the trade, is thought to be the second. This is probably—but not certainly—the case. Richard Milles’s painting reverted through his only daughter to her sons, the third and fourth Barons Sondes, who would have owned both versions, making it impossible to determine, other than on grounds of quality, if at all, which is which.

[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Richard Milles, North Elmham, Norfolk, and Nackington, Kent (until d. 1820); his grandson, Lewis Richard Watson, 3rd Baron Sondes, Lees Court, Faversham, Kent, and Rockingham Castle, Northampton (until d. 1836); his brother, George John Watson Milles, 4th Baron Sondes, Lees Court (1836–d. 1874); his son, George Watson Milles, 1st Earl Sondes, Lees Court (from 1874; sold to Wertheimer); [Samson Wertheimer, London, until 1892; his estate sale, Christie's, London, March 19, 1892, no. 713, as "Lady Sondes, in white dress, and wearing a large black hat, three-quarter length, seated in a landscape," for £4,305 to Haines]; [his son, Charles John Wertheimer, London, 1892–95; sold to Agnew]; [Agnew, London, 1895; sold to Orrock]; James Orrock, Rhode Island (1895–at least 1896; sold for £12,000 to an American collector); ?Colonel Oliver H. Payne, New York (until d. 1917); his nephew, Harry Payne Bingham, New York (by 1920–d. 1955); Mrs. Harry Payne (Melissa Y.) Bingham, New York (1955–d. 1986)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January 6–March 14, 1896, no. 9 (as "Portrait of Lady Sondes," lent by James Orrock).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition," May 8–August 1920, not in catalogue (as "Portrait of a Lady," lent by Harry Payne Bingham) [see MMA Bulletin 1920].

Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 18.

Barcelona. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. "Grandes maestros de la pintura europea de The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nueva York: De El Greco a Cézanne," December 1, 2006–March 4, 2007, no. 14.

Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor. Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds. London, 1865, vol. 2, p. 536, list "The Honourable Mrs. Watson" among works exhibited by Reynolds at the Royal Academy in 1789, possibly this picture.

Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin. A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A. Vol. 3, London, 1899, pp. 1037–38, give a full account of both Reynolds portraits of the Hon. Mrs. Watson, afterwards Lady Sondes.

Walter Armstrong. Sir Joshua Reynolds, First President of the Royal Academy. London, 1900, p. 235.

"French, English, and American Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (September 1920), p. 209, calls it "a portrait of the Honorable Mrs. Watson, afterwards Lady Sondes"; states that it was painted at the behest of the sitter's father, Richard Milles, after a 1788 portrait; notes that it was lent to the MMA Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition by Harry Payne Bingham.

"Pictures Lent for the Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (August 1920), p. 209.

A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture Lent from American Collections. Exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, 1933, p. 31.

Malcolm Cormack. "The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds." Walpole Society 42 (1970), pp. 166–67, lists two payments of £52.10.0 for "a copy," recorded in May 1789 as "paid by Mr. Milles" and in July 1789 as "given to Mr. Mills" [and two payments in the same amounts in March and July, for the first version].

Lucy Oakley in Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1986–1987. New York, 1987, pp. 36–37, ill.

Katharine Baetjer. "British Portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Summer 1999), pp. 31–32, ill. pp. 1 (detail, color), 33 (color), "the second version, probably the Museum's".

David Mannings and Martin Postle. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings (The Subject Pictures catalogued by Martin Postle). New Haven, 2000, vol. 1, pp. 21, 464, no. 1841; vol. 2, fig. 1574, as a "studio replica" of the Rockingham Castle picture [no. 1840], but one which, given the price, the artist worked on himself; list also [no. 1841a] a smaller "nineteenth-century copy, somewhat in the style of Hoppner" in the Toledo Museum of Art (sold, Christie's, New York, January 30, 2014, no. 272).

Katharine Baetjer in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 110–14, no. 18, ill. (color, overall and detail) [Catalan ed., Barcelona, 2006, pp. 64–67, no. 14, ill. (color, overall and detail).

Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 82–84, no. 35, ill. (color), states that although it is generally assumed that the picture at Rockingham Castle is the first version and the one at the MMA is the second, this is not certain.

The frame is from England and dates to about 1800 (see Additional Images, figs. 1–4). This late Carlo Maratta (1625–1713) style carved and gilded frame is made of pine and mitred at the corners. Retaining its original dimensions, though with an early regilding, the carved ornament symmetrically emerges from center points and is resolved at the four corners with acanthus leaves. A small cavetto rises to husks from crossed ribbon centers. Within the hollow, boldly carved acanthus leaf and shield ornament are applied. Upon a small step twisted ribbon on stick lie before the draped astragal top edge. A hollow at the sides falls back to a simple lotus carved back edge. This handsome frame pattern was frequently used by the artist.

[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2017; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]
A version of this composition formerly in the Toledo Museum of Art was sold at Christie's, New York, January 30, 2014, no. 272, as Attributed to Hoppner.
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