Lady Wigram sits upon a red velvet couch looking at the viewer, her gaze calm and inviting. Behind her is a window that opens onto a dynamic landscape. It seems appropriate that Lawrence would present the sitter in such an affable manner. Not only was Eleanor the mother of seventeen children, but she was also a devoted philanthropist. Eleanor pioneered the establishment of education and welfare programs in Walthamstow, Essex. Her husband, a wealthy British merchant named Sir Robert Wigram, once said of his wife: ”I never did undertake any business of moment without consultation with my wife, and I can truly say it has much promoted my fortune.”
Lady Wigram was clearly a woman with a steadfast personality. Her involvement in her husband’s professional life may be the reason for a number of details within Lawrence’s portrait. The cashmere shawl draped over Eleanor’s shoulders may allude to Robert’s successful investment in the East India Docks, a venture that managed the import of exotic goods and textiles such as the one worn by Eleanor. The body of water in the landscape may refer to Robert Wigram’s other investments in sea-trade.
Lawrence pays close attention to fashion, ornamenting his sitter with Elizabethan Revival dress, including her long, black velvet gown and intricate white lace collar. This traditionally British style was one manifestation of the swell of patriotism in England after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, one year before the exhibition of this portrait in the Royal Academy. Lawrence’s professional allegiance to the court may be a cause of the patriotic nature of his paintings. He worked in Britain’s royal courts as the in-house painter to George III, and in 1815, the same year that Lady Wigram was painted, Lawrence was knighted for his services to the crown.
Audio: Martha Moldovan, Oberlin College