I stood in front of her, the dim buzzing of children’s voices fading behind me. Her glowing face stared out at me, a wisp of a smile on her perfect lips, a vast verdant landscape stretching out behind her. Leaning close to the tiny sign to the right of the painting, I read “Mrs. Davies Davenport, 1782-1784, George Romney, British.” And now here she was, 235 years later, in the British Galleries of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Arthur Bensley Chamberlain wrote “the lovely face with its very winning expression, is one of his [Romney’s] most sympathetic transcripts of fresh English girlhood.”*
But who was Mrs. Davies Davenport?
There’s something humbling about looking at portraits of people long dead. At one time, those faces, those names, meant something to people. But the vagaries of time erode memory.
“Time passes!” Men in fond delusion say.
“No!” Time demurs; “’tis men that pass away.“**
Haunted by this woman’s face, her cool dark eyes staring at me, her thoughts something only she and God knew, I Googled her name. Raw details of her life spilled out, that when she sat for her portrait, she’d just turned 26. Charlotte came from English landed gentry, Keele, an estate in Staffordshire belonging to the Sneyd family. Born in 1756, she married the High Sheriff of Cheshire – Davies Davenport of Capesthorne – in 1777, bore five children, the last in 1791. In 1806, her husband began his long tenure as a Tory MP for Cheshire, retiring in 1830, a year after Charlotte’s death.
Time, that elusive thing, granted her 73 years of life and consciousness. But what did she do during her time here? What did she think? Where did her passions lead her?
I imagined grand parties, trips to London, managing her large household and estate at Capesthorne. Her cooks served French-inspired food, of that I could be sure. But I yearned for a diary, a cache of letters, a scandal even, anything that would thrust this woman out of the shadows of the men of her family.
Of her husband, I garnered the details of his time as MP from The History of Parliament. And the magnificent Davenport family manor house, Capesthorne, underwent an ambitious renovation under the sojourn of her eccentric son, Edward Davies Davenport. Edward happened to be a writer, with a “gloomy soul,” according to Henry Gally Knight.
Now when I look at her face, scrutinizing those lightly flushed cheeks and amber-brown eyes, I wonder if I’m seeing something melancholic in her nature. A thought keeps playing in my brain, like a song that torments when I hear a stanza over a loudspeaker or on YouTube: All the wealth in the world couldn’t stop the twist of memory, the obscurity wrought by time’s passage.
*George Romney (Arthur Bensley Chamberlain, Charles Scribner, 1910, p. 304)
**Arthur Guiterman, “Man and Time”
The photograph above is of Capesthorne Hall.