Long-lost portrait of Fairfax House financier Elizabeth Clifford bought for Georgian townhouse with Art Fund support

Elizabeth Clifford: Portrait acquired by York Civic Trust for £14,500

A LONG-MISSING portrait of Elizabeth Clifford, the female financier of Fairfax House, goes on display this week at the Georgian townhouse in York after a successful campaign to raise £14,500 for its acquisition.

The portrait’s existence had been known for many years but its location was lost. Research undertaken at Fairfax House by collections manager Rachel Wallis revealed the painting was in danger of being sold into a private collection and potentially exported.

Fairfax House launched a campaign to raise sufficient funds to buy the portrait, attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller, and return it to permanent public display, with support from Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as generous public donations.

Fairfax House curator Sarah Burnage says: “We are so grateful that we were able to save this portrait from going into private collection and are instead able to display it, especially given its significance to the house’s history.”

A wealthy woman in her own right, the Hon. Elizabeth Clifford married Charles Gregory Fairfax, later 9th Viscount of Emley, in November 1720. Sadly, Elizabeth died only six months later from smallpox and Charles Gregory inherited all of Elizabeth’s money and possessions, including a townhouse in London. Whereupon he used this inheritance to stabilise the shaky Fairfax finances and later down the line purchased Fairfax House. 

The townhouse museum, in Castlegate, hopes this purchase will support its plan to reveal the stories of other women who have been forgotten by history. Rachel Wallis says: “It is undeniable that Elizabeth’s wealth is the reason that we have Fairfax House as we know it today, and yet we barely know anything about her.

“We want to use this portrait to help support our plan to tell the stories of the forgotten Fairfax women. We have already started undergoing new research into Elizabeth’s life and can’t wait to share what we uncover about her.”

The portrait goes on display from tomorrow (4/8/2023) to coincide with York’s inaugural Georgian Festival (www.mansionhouseyork.com/yorkgeorgianfestival). Children and under 16s go free at Fairfax House, where admission for adults is £7.50. Opening hours are 11am to 4pm every day except Fridays (guided tours only).

Fairfax House, Castlegate, York

Fairfax House: the back story

ONE of England’s finest Georgian townhouses, it was restored by York Civic Trust in the 1980s and has been open to the public ever since.

Originally the city home of Ann Fairfax, bought for her by her father, the 9th Viscount Fairfax, the house’s richly decorated interiors and stucco ceilings make it a masterpiece of Georgian design and architecture.

A beautiful collection of furniture, donated by Noel Terry, brings the house alive, recalling a lost world of townhouse-living in the 1760s for visitors.

Find out more at: www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk 

Portrait of the artist

THE portrait of Elizabeth Clifford has been attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723). Born in Germany, Kneller studied on the continent before moving to England. Here he established himself as the leading portraitist of the period, founding a studio that churned out portraits of the rich and famous on an almost industrial scale. 

Elizabeth’s portrait is a fine example of one of Kneller’s more intimate female studies. The emphasis is placed directly upon the sitter’s alluring femininity, enhanced by her hair falling over her shoulder.

Her fine features have been rendered sensitively:  the bold handling or flesh tones and free fluidity of brushstrokes draws in the viewer. The sizeable area of grey ground is typical of Kneller’s later works. A method developed by the artist to speed up the painting process, it meant his studio could cope better with the many demands of a large circle of patrons.  

At the time of his­ death in 1723, around 500 works remained unfinished in his studio. To date, he is the only artist to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey. 

The framed portrait of Elizabeth Clifford

Who was Elizabeth, Viscountess Dunbar?

THE Hon. Elizabeth Clifford was born in April 1689 in Ugbrooke Park, Chudleigh, Devon. She was the daughter of Hugh Clifford, 2nd Baron Clifford of Chudleigh, and Anne Preston, daughter of Sir Thomas Preston, 3rd Baronet. 

She first was married to William Constable, 4th Viscount Dunbar, 1717-1718, and second to Charles Gregory Fairfax, 9th Viscount of Emley, in 1720. The marriage only lasted until April 1721 when Elizabeth died from smallpox in Bath, where she was on a visit to take in the waters. She is buried in Bath Abbey.

Charles remarried very quickly in 1722, tying the knot with Mary Fairfax, a distant cousin, who had been left a substantial part of Elizabeth’s wealth.  

It was this wealth that created the opportunity for Charles Fairfax to renovate his country estate at Gilling Castle and purchase and fund his daughter Ann’s remodelling of the grand townhouse on Castlegate, York.

York Civic Trust’s collection already contains the portraits of Mary Fairfax and her daughter, Ann, as well as a modern copy of Charles Fairfax’s portrait. Elizabeth completes the family picture.