The son of actors Matthew Sully and Sarah Chester, Thomas Sully was born at Horncastle, England, in 1783. The family emigrated to Richmond, Virginia, in 1792 and two years later settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Sully returned to his native England for study in 1809–10 and in that year his level of painterly accomplishment grew tenfold. Back home he was lauded as the “American Lawrence,” the finest portraitist in Philadelphia and one of the best in the country. Sully’s daybook overflowed with commissions from the elite of Pennsylvania and Maryland society, and the affable and levelheaded artist managed his affairs in a manner worthy of a successful portraitist. He almost single-handedly created the vogue for full-length portraiture in Philadelphia, and his career soared on a trajectory that had him painting celebrated public figures as well as the most eminent and fashionable private citizens in the vicinity. He was especially well known for his highly engaging and flattering portraits of women.
Sully had always planned a return trip to London and it was the financial panic of 1837 that set him on his way that fall. His friend, the publisher Edward Carey, offered the artist an advance on commissions for copies of narrative pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and a number of other Philadelphia gentlemen placed similar orders. On October 9, 1837, the day before his decided date of departure from Philadelphia to London, Thomas Sully received a missive from the local chapter of the Society of the Sons of Saint George, a benevolent association devoted to supporting indigent English emigrants and their families. The gentlemen prevailed upon the artist to paint for their meeting room a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria, who had ascended to the throne just months before. Sully had by that time packed for a three-month study trip, intended as a refresher course in British painting; for his twenty-three-year-old daughter Blanch, who would travel along as his companion, it was anticipated as an exploration of English manners, dress, and society. They had neither bargained nor, it seems, wished for a royal encounter. Sully’s inevitable acceptance of the commission propelled him into an intricate realm of propriety and protocol that extended his trip and changed his life.
At times, Sully cursed the commission that kept him in London longer than he had planned but brilliantly filled his time with social calls and other work. He visited every exhibition and museum, dined with lords and ladies, attended opera and dramatic performances, and reveled in the life of London in the coronation year. “How strange,” he wrote to his wife, “that I should leave my quiet, humble circle at home, to visit London and mix with the elite of the Court.” While waiting to paint the queen, he studied the portraits in progress on other painters’ easels and when his turn came—his was her sixty-first sitting of the coronation year—rose to the challenge with remarkable skill. Because of the work, he was, in his own modest words of astonishment, “introduced to distinguished people, and kind friends, enabled to converse familiarly with the Sovereign of the present greatest empire in the world.” The clever and youthful Victoria, for her part, was a keen portrait sitter, eager to dispatch her image to all foreign ports and tickled by the notion of being painted by an American: “Am I in the position you require Mr. Sully?” she asked during their first session on March 22, 1838, indulging the Yankee with the privilege of posing the royal body according to his preferred design.
That same day, she recorded in her diary: “I sat to a Mr. Sully, a painter who is come from America to paint me.” Victoria sat for at least fifteen artists over the course of the coronation year, day after day, occasionally twice a day and two at a time. She did not often describe the goings-on in her portrait studio but clearly preferred sittings with an amusing and handsome portraitist. She permitted Sully, who was both charming and good-looking, to take remarkable liberty in his portrayal. Sully’s Victoria is completely off guard, having turned as if to respond to a caller, although protocol prohibited anyone from speaking to the queen without having been spoken to. Most artists employed the canonical image of the divinas majestas, in force since the reign of Elizabeth I: the sovereign stands facing the viewer, wearing the state robes but without the imperial crown, which is off to the side with the orb and scepter. Each of Victoria’s painters faced the problem of making the new queen look serious but not dour, youthful but not naive. “I should be gratified,” wrote Sully, “if I were able to give an idea of the sweet tone of voice, and gentle manner of Queen Victoria! It was impressive of dignity and mildness, and at the same time I felt quite at my ease, as tho in company with merely a well bred lady.”
Sully returned home to Philadelphia in the fall of 1838 and began work simultaneously on two full-length portraits of Victoria, one for the Saint George Society and another for himself, to exhibit on tour. His studies, including a meticulous record of the palette he used to complete each one, served him well and his two portraits were highly acclaimed even before he had finished them. Such was the advance notoriety of the portrait that the Saint George Society took Sully to court, arguing for their exclusive right to the image. In this, the first case over artistic copyright brought before the American bar, the Supreme Court of Philadelphia decided in May 1839 that the society held ownership of the portrait, while Sully retained title to the design or invention. It was a Pyrrhic victory for Sully, who gained some fame by the portraits but little profit, since his tour to Montreal, Quebec City, New Orleans, and Washington was in competition with the society’s tour of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In 1844, Sully gave his version to the Saint Andrew’s Society in Charleston, South Carolina, where he had good friends. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the members moved the portrait to a warehouse in Columbia, where it was burned in 1865. Meanwhile, the Saint George version remained safe and sound, first in the society’s meeting room and later at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the Saint George benefactors would hold their annual meeting. The society sold the painting in the mid-1950s to a private collector, who has promised the portrait as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum.