Romney, contemporary of Reynolds and Gainsborough, left his wife and two children in the north to compete in the London portraiture market. Thirty-five years later, having established a major reputation in the field, he returned home to be cared for by his wife until his death in 1802.
This work was painted in 1777, during the height of Romney’s fame. Simultaneously he worked on a portrait of the sitter’s sister, Anne. Both works were sent to the Parry sisters’ brother Edward (Edmund?), in India. It was he who had sent them the Indian muslin from which their dresses are made, and the portraits served in part as a rather grand ‘thankyou’ for his gift of fine fabric. It is noteworthy, however, that the use of pale, simple fabrics for clothing female sitters was a hallmark of Romney’s work in the late 1770s. With few trimmings and folds, costumes of this kind symbolised simplicity, grace and chastity, the perceived female virtues, and those that made a woman marriageable. Women in late 18th century England were considerably freer than their counterparts in a country like France, but nevertheless had to maintain an appearance of modesty and virtuousness. Romney’s portraits helped advance the image. Indeed, so great was Romney’s reputation in the 1770s and early 80s, he was able to contribute to a pan-European change in women’s fashions, popularising the taste for the simple white ‘grecian’ dress that swept fashionable society at the end of the century.
This work and its companion remained in the family until the early 20th century. Via Leggatt’s, Vickers' and Sotheby’s, this one entered the collection of Abe Bailey in the 1930s. The other is thought to be currently in an American collection, whereabouts unknown.