Penelope Biddulph

Archibald Skirving (1749-1819)


Painted around 1785, this attractive portrait shows a young lady with blue eyes and a gentle demeanour set against a blue cloudy sky background. She is wearing a décolleté white gown trimmed on the sleeves with blue ribbon and fastened at the waist with a matching sash decorated with a rosette. She wears three gold necklaces of differing lengths and her long lightly powdered curls are topped with a striking turban style hat topped with white ostrich feathers.

The sitter is understood to be Penelope Biddulph. Born in 1768, she was the eldest of three daughters born to Michael and Penelope Biddulph of Ledbury. It appears that Skirving painted portraits of all three sisters; the portrait of Mary Ann (b. 1769) is illustrated in Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide (Foskett 1987, p. 340) whilst the portrait of Anne (b.1772) was sold at Christies in 1998 (Robert Baden-Powell collection). A further signed miniature in the V&A Museum of an unknown lady bearing a family resemblance may indeed be a portrait of the girls’ mother, Penelope Biddulph (née Dandridge).

The portrait is presented in an attractive gold frame with a pearl border and hanger, the reverse hinged and glazed to reveal plaited hair. Excellent condition.

The son of a Scottish tenant farmer, Archibald Skirving began his artistic career whilst also working as a clerk in the Edinburgh Customs Office. A decade later he made the brave move to London to become a full-time miniaturist though he only stayed two years. He subsequently spent time in Rome but in 1794 whilst sailing homeward he was taken prisoner by the French accused of espionage. Nine months in prison took a toll on his health especially on his eyesight though, upon his return to his native Scotland, he continued to paint portraits in pastel and oils. Not long before his death in 1819, the historian Thomas Carlyle described Skirving as “an altogether striking man … one of the cleanest old men I ever saw … nose hooked like an eagle’s bill, eyes still with something of the eagle’s flash in them … chin all betokening impetuosity, rapidity, delicacy and the stormy fire of genius not yet hidden under the ashes of old age. A face and figure never to be forgotten.”


Item Ref. 5280

Size: oval, 65 x 50mm