Portrait of a (Plantagenet?) Lady (2008)

The House

Earlier this year, with a little time to kill in Sudbury town centre, I resolved to visit “Gainsborough’s House”, a museum in which the legendary artist (1727-88) was brought up. The work of several artists is displayed across two floors and my attention was caught by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1758 portrait of “Mrs. Barrington”.

The Barrington (originally de Barentone) family was well known in South Suffolk and Essex because, from 1250 to 1832, they occupied Barrington Hall, Hatfield Broad Oak near Harlow. The manor and forest of Hatfield passed to them in 1521 on the attainder of the last Stafford Duke of Buckingham and, in 1559, Sir Thomas Barrington married Winifred Pole, the younger daughter of Henry Lord Montagu and thus great-granddaughter of George of Clarence. Given that the sitter’s husband probably paid Reynolds, does this mean that he was a Clarence descendant?

Winifred’s son, Francis was created a Baronet on the Jacobean accession and three consecutive family heads from 1644 to 1717 were named John, although this is a little early for Reynolds’ career. There is, however a slight complication in that Francis, a junior member of the family, married one Elizabeth Shute and adopted her cousin. This cousin adopted the Barrington surname and his descendants became Barons and Viscounts but they have no known Plantagenet blood. Some of them in Reynolds’ lifetime were named John.

The solution

Six days after my visit, a note arrived from the House, explaining that the sitter was the Honourable Mrs. Barrington. This could simply have meant that she was of noble stock but married to a Baronet or relation but the full information points to her husband (d. 1764) as the third son of the first Viscount (created 1720), a Major-General. He is, in other words, not a Barrington of Plantagenet descent and she was born Elizabeth, daughter of Florentius Vassal.

 Although the original Sir Francis married Joan Cromwell, aunt of the Protector and thus a relative of John Hampden, the true Barringtons stayed out of the Civil War, unlike their Hastings and Capell cousins. The male line expired in 1832 when Sir Fitzwilliam, who had married his cousin Edith Marshall, died leaving only daughters. Through Julia, one of these, and her husband Philip Powys, Winifred Pole’s descendants flourish today.


The History of the Barrington Family, G. Alan Lowndes (Transactions of the Essex Archeological Society, 1878) pp.251-73.

Burke’s Peerage (1885, p.92).

Tim Powys-Lybbe, farmer and Plantagenet, who found the first two sources.

Gainsborough’s House, which is open every day from 10 to 5 except Sundays, Good Friday and 24 December – 2 January (01787-372958, www.gainsborough.org ).

PS Apologies to Henry James!

By super blue

Grandson of a Town player.


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