notes, finds & fragments of research
John Michael Wright (May 1617 – July 1694)
Lady Susanna Hamilton, 1662
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 72.40 x 61.00 cm
Photo & Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
That’s the statement made by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Yes, the portrait does suggest character and intelligence. I even think it shows the dear lady has a good sense of humour and is very pragmatic. But the phrase ‘(…) rather than flattering her appearance’, I think, is a bit harsh.
‘Jolie laide,’ is the first thing that sprung to mind when I saw her portrait for the first time. It is a French expression and literally translated it means ‘pretty ugly’, but with the connotation of someone who has a pleasant or even attractive appearance but cannot be considered ‘a conventional beauty’ – it is widely known this society has clear ideas about beauty and many standards are set for it. Susanna probably wouldn’t fall under many of them, but every time I see her portrait (I keep a copy of this photo in my research files) she cheers me up. Judging solely on appearances I’d rather have tea with her than her sister Lady Anne Hamilton – the later Duchess of Hamilton, who is my ancestor.
What a life both must have had.
Lady Susanna was born the second daughter and co-heiress of James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, KG, and his wife, Lady Margaret Feilding. Her grandparents and further ancestors are all very well-known protagonists from the British and Scottish history.
Her father, the Duke of Hamilton, was a supporter of the royalist cause during the English Civil War (1642-1651). After the Battle of Preston (1648) he surrendered to Cromwell, and was indicted for treason, tried and sentenced to death by Parliament. He was beheaded at Westminster, just weeks after King Charles I. His wife, who was a daughter of another supporter of the Royalist cause: Sir William Fielding, the 1st Earl of Denbigh, had already died ten years earlier.
Lady Susanna was just sixteen years old when she became an orphan. Not much is known (at least to me, at this point), about what happened to her. But she and her one year older sister Lady Anne, were the only ones left of that family; their brothers all having died in infancy. It must have been harsh times for the two girls, but both would reach the age of elderly women with families of their own. Anne, would later on be granted the Hamilton titles and became Duchess in her own right, married William Douglas, the 1st Earl of Selkirk and henceforth their descendants would mostly be known as the Douglas-Hamilton family.
Lady Susanna must have already been considered a spinster. In December 1668, however, she married a Scottish nobleman nearly twenty years her junior: John Kennedy who, three months earlier had succeeded his father as the 9th Lord Kennedy and 7th Earl of Cassilis. And so Lady Susanna, aged thirty-six, became Countess of Cassilis (pronounced as ‘Cassels’) and would little later become a mother to the Honourable John, Lord Kennedy and Lady Anne Kennedy.
The clans of Douglas and Hamilton were already intertwined but this tradition found itself continued by the children. In the year of Lady Susanna’s death, 1694, her daughter Lady Anne Kennedy married the second son of her own sister: the Honourable John Hamilton who would later become the 1st Earl of Ruglen and by succession the 3rd Earl of Selkirk. Sadly, Lady Anne would only reach the age of 20 years, and two years later her widower would marry his sister in law Lady Elizabeth Kennedy (born Hutchinson) who herself had just become the widow of the aforementioned John, Lord Kennedy. And so all the family stayed family despite of the deaths occurred; and the Douglas-Hamilton’s would only become stronger in their positions at court and in society
Much more is known about her sister, but I would still like to know more about the Countess of Cassilis if only because of that weary held back ‘I-know-more-than-you-would-think-smile’ she presents on her portrait.
In that regard the artist has outdone himself. I have seen more works of Wright and they all have this most realistic look – just like Lady Susanna. It is as if you just have to wait a few seconds before she will adjust her dress, cough gently or start conversation about the dreadful roads to Edinburgh.
John Michael Wright a contemporary of Sir Peter Lely and thus one of the portrait painters that worked during the Satin, Pearls & Curls Era as can be seen on Lady Susanna wearing a tight white satin bodice with a pearl and quite possibly diamond broche, paned sleeves lined in gold satin with undefined gemstones. It is interesting to see that although she wears the fashionable low, broad neckline with the bare shoulders, it is virtuously covered up by a barely visible shawl or drape – most likely meant to put emphasis on her respectable and virginal status as an unmarried daughter of the noble Hamiltons. And although barely seen, it works. Where normally there would be cleavage displayed in all voluptuousness, this is instantly turned to something modest with that little bit of fabric. The question being: was it added on a later moment? Wright, however, is known to have been a skilled and subtle master in these matters. He even managed to present Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland as a modest woman. If that isn’t a true accomplishment and proof of mastery I don’t know what would be.
But she is not only displayed in virtue but also in wealth. She wears a considerable value in the amount of pearls, diamonds and other valuables on her dress, around her neck, dangling from her ears and not to forget the strings and ornaments in the elaborate mass of curls; it most likely be enough to feed a few families for some time. And again, whereas with some I would consider it too much, with Lady Susanna I can’t help but think it only adds to the whole picture of whom she was: an intelligent woman with a strong character and a sad past.