These glowing, textured pastel portraits of husband and wife Captain William Pierrepont and Mrs Maria Pierrepont are by John Russell, one of the leading English pastel portraitists of his time.
Russell's care for his work after completion is shown in his use of standard printed sheets on the proper care of pastels which were attached to the back of the portraits’ frames until 2006, until removed for better preservation.
William is shown in his working environment as a Royal Naval captain, on board a ship with a telescope under one arm. His hat is just visible on a rail, and a hammock and open sea can be glimpsed behind him.
In contrast, Maria is depicted within an interior of taste and wealth, a glimpse of a park land in summer beyond. Her portrait was probably done when she was about 23, possibly pregnant with her first child.
The technical brilliance of her portrait lies in how the sitter’s arms, the dark background behind her head and the shaded modelling of her lower dress create a concentration of light on her torso and face, highlighting these but also giving the whole image great depth.
William and Maria married in 1797, and he rose to post-captain in 1798. While on patrol in the Bay of Biscay in 1799, his ship sighted and gave chase to two Spanish frigates, inward bound from Mexico with £600,000 of treasure, mainly Mexican silver. The chase was joined by three other British frigates before the prizes were eventually captured: each of the four captains’ shares of the treasure and sale of the Spanish vessels was approximately £40,700.
Even individual seamen and marines got just over £182 each: these were huge sums at the time, the captains’ shares being worth more than £8 million each in modern terms, and the whole being one of the Navy’s most valuable captures ever at sea. The Pierreponts had certainly enjoyed William’s good fortune in prize-money by the time Russell drew them in 1801.
By 1812 William had risen by seniority to Rear-Admiral of the Blue, but died in 1813. Of his and Maria’s five children, only two reached adulthood. Maria died in 1864. Their portraits remained in their family until 1946, when they entered the Museum together, in deference to the donor’s wish that they stayed together.