Known in their times as the nightingales, Elizabeth and Mary Linley were the most beautiful and talked-about young girls in Baths society in the 1770s. From a musical family, they were applauded on the theatre stages of Bath and London, as much as they appeared in the newspapers of the day as society figures. They were portrayed together, in 1772, by Thomas Gainsborough, who was a close friend of their fathers, and their neighbour in Bath. The painter had seen Elizabeth and Mary grow before his eyes and tenderly represented them in their magnificent large canvas known as The Linley Sisters, now at Dulwich Picture Gallery
In the same year as the Dulwich painting was finished by Gainsborough, Elizabeth eloped to France with the young playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, causing a great scandal. A year later, in 1773, the two were married. Elizabeth did not expect the marriage to be an unhappy one, constantly marked by Sheridans infidelities. Elizabeth gave up singing and supported her husband in his career as a writer and politician.
Gainsborough was to portray Elizabeth at different points in her life. This is his last image of her aged thirtyone- only a few years before her untimely death of tuberculosis in 1792. Elizabeth sits under a tree in the open countryside a windswept valley so different from the delicate violets and primroses of the earlier double portrait at Dulwich. Elizabeths entire figure is transformed by the romantic wind in the canvas, just as passion swept her short life. After her death, William Jackson noted that as a singer she is perished forever, as a woman she still exists in a picture painted by Gainsborough.
Earl A. Powell III, the Director of the National Gallery of Art Washington, said: We are delighted that Gainsboroughs Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan will represent the National Gallery of Art at the Bicentenary celebrations of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The masterpiece will be on display from 6 September 2 October 2011.