She stands, elongated and slender, before a sky that combines a soft storm with a lurid light. Leaning forward gently, she resembles a glistening tree that bends in a mild and fragile breeze. Everything about her is lengthy: limbs that ripple under lace and silk, a neck that extends from sloping shoulders in a white, dizzying curve, powdered hair that is curled and piled – swept away from a sad, thoughtful forehead.
One arm is extended to grasp a length of taffeta – gold and melting – the other arm is bent, pressing the fabric to a pale, chaste breast. Gilded rosettes bloom and descend down the edges of her overskirt, they huddle in an embroidered bower at her elbows. Her shoes are tiny and painful, their dainty heels made for the refined tapping on polished, elegant floors: the elegant language of comings and goings.
Thomas Gainsborough painted this portrait in 1778, when his subject was 20 years old. A portrait with a dark and thunderous background circulating around a still, luminous center, it is a portrayal of a quiet beauty wrapped in arsenic-colored skin and metallic cloth.
She has all the outward modesty and grace of a girl who has spent her childhood in a convent. Serene and aristocratic, she seems to be made for quietude. Snowy skin, discreet roses strewn across her cheekbones, dark and poignant brows that overshadow languorous eyes…she is Mrs. Grace Elliott Dalrymple.
Nicknamed ‘Dally The Tall’ with typical 18th century familiarity – the equivalent to a boisterous slap on the rump – she was one of the most renown courtesans of late 18th century London. Dally ruled with her fellow ‘impures’ over a city teeming with disease and debauchery. The demimonde of England’s greatest city was a nest of snakes – horrible and beautiful – and they rose above the writhing half-world like indulgent, immoral goddesses.
Four years before this portrait was painted Dally was a young adulteress, running away from a marriage she entered into as a pale, 13 year-old bride. Four years after this portrait was painted Dally was the mistress of the lush and improvident Prince of Wales (later George IV). The daughter she bore soon after the beginning of this affair could have been fathered by any one of an assortment of men who were her ‘benefactors’ at the time. The child was baptized Georgina Frederica Augusta Elliott Daughter of His Royal Highness George Prince of Wales & Grace Elliott – but whether out of audacity or accuracy no one ever knew.
Her adventures took her to Paris a few years before the storming of the Bastille; and no patrician loveliness could save her from a population that was threatened and therefore dangerous. British, a known royalist, former lover of the Duke of Orleans (the Prince had introduced her to him), she was imprisoned in late 1793, shortly after the Reign of Terror had begun. When she was released in October of 1794, Robespierre was dead , many of her noble friends were dead…but Dally was alive and free.
As with all women of beauty and scandal, rumors surrounded them like clouds of powder and blush, creating graceful, perfumed enigmas. Rumor, for instance, had it that Dally was the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte: two warriors in their own chosen fields. But what is surely known is that Grace Elliott Dalrymple, aka ‘Dally The Tall’, died in 1823. She was sixty-five years old.
Gainsborough had no idea of the tumultuous life Dally still had before her once she stepped out his studio. But perhaps through his earthy, intuitive genius he sensed her stormy future when he decided to paint her, a floating light, before a distant – yet impending – tempest.