Martha Allen

Circa 1760-65


This finely drawn plumbago portrait portrays a lady named Martha Allen wearing a pearl choker necklace fastened with a ribbon bow and a décolleté dress trimmed with expensive lace with a patterned stomacher, her hair upswept and dressed with flowers.

Born in King’s Lynn in January 1740, Martha was the youngest of three children born to Thomas Allen and his second wife Mary Maxey of Bircham Newton in Norfolk. A tablet in the village church is dedicated to Martha’s grandfather, Ambrose Allen, who died in 1728 and who ‘by his carefull industry raised a fair fortune to his family’.

At the age of 25 in 1765, Martha married Arthur Young, a campaigner for the rights of agricultural workers and author of Tour in Ireland (1780) Travels in France (1792) amongst other works. The younger son of a vicar, Arthur loved to dance! He apparently spent his book allowance on ‘foppery in dress for the balls’. Perhaps that is how the young couple met. Once married, they settled at Bradfield Hall in Bury St Edmunds. The marriage, however, was not a happy one as witnessed by their niece Fanny Burney when she visited in 1792. Martha was reported to be ‘shrewish’ and a hypochondriac. Burney also described her as ‘immoderately fat’ with ‘an overbearing temper’. Arthur on the other hand was described as ‘a lady’s man’ and was rumoured to be having a covert relationship with a fifteen year old girl. The couple had four children, the youngest a girl known affectionately as ‘Bobbin’ whose tragic death from consumption at the age of fourteen deeply affected her parents and turned her father to religion.

The portrait has a light edge mark at 2 o’clock but is otherwise in good condition. It resides in the original turned wood frame with a textured gilt slip, the backing board inscribed with the sitter’s details. There are some old wormholes mostly confined to one side of the frame.

Item Ref. 6069

Size: framed, 105 x 91mm (4 x 3½")