Family Group Sheet
Family Group Sheet
NameRt Hon Admiral Hon Edward BOSCAWEN PC
MotherCharlotte GODFREY (1670-1754)
Marriage1742, St Michaels , Cornwall
SpouseFrances Evelyn GLANVILLLE
Death1808, Bath
Birth28 May 1747
Notes for Rt Hon Admiral Hon Edward BOSCAWEN PC
Admiral of the blue. Lord of the Admiralty. Fought in North American Wars. Recd 6 Dec 1758 the unanimous thanks of the H of C for his mil services in N America;

From Wikipedia:

Sir Edward Boscawen was a British admiral. He was born in 1711 and died in 1761. He was the third son of the first Viscount Falmouth. In 1741 he distinguished himself at the taking of Porto Bello. In 1744 when in command of the Dreadnought, he assisted in the capture of the French ship Medee. In 1747, after commanding the Namur, in the action off Finisterre, where he was wounded, he became a rear-admiral. Having subsequently rendered useful service in India, he became a lord of the Admiralty in 1751, and a vice- admiral in 1755. He effected the reduction of Louisburg and Cape Breton Island in 1758, and in the following year chased and destroyed a French squadron under De La Clue off Lagos. In 1758 he reached the rank of admiral, and in 1760 was made general of marines.

His aggressiveness in battle and naval triumphs earned him the nicknames "Old Dreadnought" and "Wry-necked Dick."

From Wikipedia:

Admiral Edward Boscawen, PC (19 August 1711 – 10 January 1761) was an Admiral in the Royal Navy and Member of Parliament for the borough of Truro, Cornwall. He is known principally for his various naval commands throughout the 18th Century and the engagements that he won, including the Siege of Louisburg in 1758 and Battle of Lagos in 1759. He is also remembered as the officer who signed the warrant authorising the execution of Admiral John Byng after Byng's court martial in 1757 after the failure of Byng to engage the enemy at the Battle of Minorca.

In his political role, he served as a Member of Parliament for Truro from 1742 until his death although due to his almost constant naval employment he does not appear to have been particularly active in the role. He also served as one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty on the Board of Admiralty from 1751 and as a member of the Privy Council from 1758 until his death in 1761.

Early life

The Honourable Edward Boscawen was born in Tregothnan, Cornwall, England on 19 August 1711. Edward was the third son of Hugh Boscawen, 1st Viscount Falmouth and his wife Charlotte.]

The young Edward joined the navy at the age of 12 aboard the HMS Superb of 60-guns. The Superb was sent to the West Indies with Admiral Francis Hosier.[3] Boscawen stayed with Superb for three years during the Anglo-Spanish War. He was subsequently reassigned to the HMS Canterbury, HMS Hector, and HMS Namur under Admiral Sir Charles Wager and was aboard the Namur when she sailed into Cadiz and Livorno following the Treaty of Seville that ended hostilities between Britain and Spain. On 25 May 1732 Boscawen was promoted lieutenant and in the August of the same year rejoined his old ship the 44-gun fourth rate Hector in the Mediterranean. He remained with her until 16 October 1735 when he was promoted to the 70-gun HMS Grafton. On 12 March 1736 Boscawen was promoted by Admiral Sir John Norris to the temporary command of the 50-gun HMS Leopard. His promotion was confirmed by the Board of Admiralty. In June 1738 Boscawen was given command of HMS Shoreham a small sixth-rate of 20-guns.[4] He was ordered to accompany Admiral Edward Vernon to the West Indies in preparation for the oncoming war with Spain.[4]

War of Jenkins' Ear: Battle of Porto Bello

The War of Jenkins’ Ear proved to be Boscawen’s first opportunity for action and when the Shoreham was declared unfit for service he volunteered to accompany Vernon and the fleet sent to attack Porto Bello.[4]

The bombardment of Porto Bello,

by Samuel Scott

During the siege Boscawen was ordered with Sir Charles Knowles to destroy the forts.[4][5] The task took three weeks and 122 barrels of gunpowder to accomplish but the British levelled the forts surrounding the town. Vernon’s achievement was hailed in Britain as an outstanding feat of arms and in the furore that surrounded the announcement the patriotic song "Rule, Britannia" was played for the first time. Streets were named after Porto Bello throughout Britain and its colonies. When the fleet returned to Port Royal, Jamaica the Shoreham had been refitted and Boscawen resumed command of her.

Battle of Cartagena de Indias

In 1741 Boscawen was part of the fleet sent to attack another Caribbean port, Cartagena de Indias.[4] Large reinforcements had been sent from Britain, including 8,000 soldiers who were landed to attack the chain of fortresses surrounding the Spanish colonial city. The Spanish had roughly 6,000 troops made up of regular soldiers, sailors and local loyalist natives. The siege lasted for over two months during which period the British troops suffered over 18,000 casualties, the vast majority from disease. Vernon’s fleet suffered from dysentery, scurvy, yellow fever and other illnesses that were widespread throughout the Caribbean during the period. As a result of the battle Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s government collapsed and George II removed his promise of support to the Austrians if the Prussians advanced into Silesia. The defeat of Vernon was a contributing factor to the increased hostilities of the War of Austrian Succession. Boscawen had however distinguished himself once more. The land forces that he commanded had been instrumental in capturing Fort San Luis and Boca Chica Castle, and together with Knowles he destroyed the captured forts when the siege was abandoned.[6] For his services he was promoted to command the 70-gun Prince Frederick to replace Lord Aubrey Beauclerk who had died during the siege.[7]
[edit]War of the Austrian Succession

Main article: War of the Austrian Succession

In 1742 Boscawen returned in the Prince Frederick to England where she was paid off[7] and Boscawen joined the Fleet commanded by Admiral Norris in the newly built 60-gun HMS Dreadnought. In the same year he was returned as a Member of Parliament for Truro, a position he held until his death.

In 1744 the French attempted an invasion of England and Boscawen was with the fleet under Admiral Norris when the French fleet were sighted. The French under Admiral Rocquefeuil retreated and the British attempts to engage were confounded by a violent storm that swept the English Channel.

Whilst cruising the Channel, Boscawen had the good fortune to capture the French frigate Médée.[7] She was the first capture of an enemy ship made during the War of Austrian Succession and was commanded by M. de Hocquart. The Médée was sold and became a successful privateer[10] under her new name Boscawen commanded by George Walker.

At the end of 1744 Boscawen was give command of the HMS Royal Sovereign, guardship at the Nore anchorage. He commanded her until 1745 when he was appointed to another of his old ships HMS Namur that had been reduced (razéed) from 90-guns to 74-guns. He was appointed to command a small squadron under Vice-Admiral Martin in the Channel.

First Battle of Cape Finisterre

Battle of Cape Finisterre 1747

by Samuel Scott

In 1747 Boscawen was ordered to join Admiral Anson and took an active part in the first Battle of Cape Finisterre.[12][13] The British fleet sighted the French fleet on 3 May. The French fleet under Admiral de la Jonquière was convoying its merchant fleet to France and the British attacked. The French fleet was almost completely annihilated with all but two of the escorts taken and six merchantmen. Boscawen was injured in the shoulder during the battle by a musket ball.[14] Once more the French captain, M. de Hocquart became Boscawen’s prisoner and was taken to England.

Command in India

Boscawen was promoted rear-admiral of the blue on July 15, 1747 and was appointed to command a joint operation being sent to the East Indies. With his flag in the Namur and five other line of battle ships a few smaller men of war and a number of transports Boscawen sailed from England on November 4, 1747. On the outward voyage Boscawen made an abortive attempt to capture Mauritius by surprise but was driven off by French forces.[16] Boscawen continued on arriving at Fort St. David near the town of Cuddalore on 29 July 1748[17] and took over command from Admiral Griffin. Boscawen had been ordered to capture and destroy the main French settlement in India at Pondicherry. Factors such as Boscawen’s lack of knowledge and experience of land offensives, the failings of the engineers and artillery officers under his command, a lack of secrecy surrounding the operation and the skill of the French governor Joseph François Dupleix combined to thwarrt the attack. The British forces amounting to some 5,000 men captured and destroyed the outlying fort of Aranciopang.[18] This capture was the only success of the operation and after failing to breach the walls of the city the British forces withdrew.[19] Amongst the combatants were a young ensign Robert Clive, later known as Clive of India and Major Stringer Lawrence, later Commander-in-Chief, India.

Lawrence was captured by the French during the retreat and exchanged after the news of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had reached India.[19] Over the monsoon season Boscawen remained at Fort St David. Fortunately, for the Admiral and his staff, when a storm hit the British outpost Boscawen was ashore but his flagship the Namur went down with over 600 men aboard.
Boscawen returned to England in 1750.[20] In 1751 Anson became First Lord of the Admiralty and asked Boscawen to serve on the Admiralty Board.[21] Boscawen remained one of the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty until his death.

Seven Year's War

On 4 February 1755 Boscawen was promoted vice-admiral[22] and given command of a squadron on the North American Station. Despite the fact that Britain and France were not formally at war, preparations were being made for a conflict by then considered inevitable. A squadron of partially disarmed French ships of the line were dispatched to Canada loaded with reinforcements and Boscawen was ordered to intercept them. The French ambassador to London, the Duc de Mirepoix had informed the government of George II that any act of hostility taken by British ships would be considered an act of war. Thick fog both obstructed Boscawen's reconnaissance and scattered the French ships, but on 8 June Boscawen’s fleet sighted the Alcide, Lys and Dauphin Royal off Cape Ray off Newfoundland. In the ensuing engagement the British captured the Alcide and Lys but the Dauphin Royal escaped into the fog.[22] Amongst the 1,500 men made prisoner was the captain of the Alcide. For M. de Hocquart it was the third time that Boscawen had fought him and taken his ship.[22][23][24] Pay amounting to £80,000 was captured aboard the Lys.[24] Boscawen, as admiral of the fleet, would have been entitled to a sizeable share in the prize money. The British fleet headed for Halifax to regroup but a fever spread through the ships and the Admiral was forced to return to England. The fever killed almost 2,000 of his men.

The Execution of Admiral John Byng aboard HMS Monarch

Boscawen returned to the Channel Fleet and was commander-in-chief Portsmouth during the trial of Admiral John Byng. Boscawen signed the order of execution after the King had refused to grant the unfortunate admiral a pardon.

The Siege of Louisburg 1758

In October 1757 Boscawen was second in command under Admiral Edward Hawke. On 7 February 1758 Boscawen was promoted to Admiral of the blue squadron.[26] and ordered to take a fleet to North America. Once there, he took naval command at the Siege of Louisburg during June and July of 1758.[24] On this occasion rather than entrust the land assault to a naval commander, the army was placed under the command of General Jeffrey Amherst and General James Wolfe. The Siege of Louisburg was one of the key contributors to the capture of French possessions in Canada.[24] Wolfe used Louisburg as a staging point for the Siege of Quebec and the capture of the town took away from the French the only effective naval base that they had in Canada, as well as leading to the desrtuction of four of their ships of the line and the capture of another.[27] On his return from North America Boscawen was awarded the Thanks of both Houses of Parliament for his service. The King made Boscawen a Privy Counsellor[28] in recognition for his continued service both as a member of the Board of Admiralty and commander-in-chief.[29]

The Battle of Lagos 1759

by Francis Swaine

In April 1759 Boscawen took command of a fleet bound for the Mediterranean. His aim was to prevent another planned invasion of Britain by the French. With his flag aboard the newly constructed HMS Namur of 90-guns he blockaded Toulon and kept the fleet of Admiral de le Clue-Sabran in port. In order to tempt the French out of port, Boscawen sent three of his ships to bombard the port. The guns of the batteries surrounding the town drove off the British ships. Having sustained damage in the action and due to the constant weathering of ships on blockade duty Boscawen took his fleet to Gibraltar to refit and resupply. On 17 August a frigate that had been ordered to watch the Straits of Gibraltar signalled that the French fleet were in sight. Boscawen took his available ships to sea to engage de la Clue. During the night the British chased the French fleet and five of de la Clue’s ships managed to separate from the fleet and escape. The others were driven in to a bay near Lagos, Portugal.[30] The British overhauled the remaining seven ships of the French fleet and engaged. The French line of battle ship Centaur began a duel with the Namur but was outgunned and struck her colours. The damage aboard the Namur forced Boscawen to shift his flag to the HMS Newark of 80-guns. Whilst transferring between ships, the small boat that Boscawen was in was hit by an enemy cannon ball. Boscawen took off his wig and plugged the hole.[31] Two more French ships, the Souverain and Guerrier escaped during the second night and on the morning of the 19 August the British captured the Téméraire and Modeste and drove the French flagship Océan and Redoubtable ashore where they foundered and were set on fire by their crews to stop the British from taking them off and repairing them. The five French ships that avoided the battle made their way to Cadiz where Boscawen ordered Admiral Broderick to blockade the port. There was a certain controversy surrounding the battle in that the British pursued the French into the waters of a neutral country and there engaged the fleet. It is possible that this controversy prevented Boscawen from receiving as much recognition as other admiral’s have received for lesser victories.

Final years, death and legacy

Boscawen returned to England where he was promoted General of Marines in recognition of his service. He was given the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh. Admiral Boscawen returned to sea for the final time and took his station off the west coast of France around Quiberon Bay. After a violent attack of what was later diagnosed as Typhoid fever the Admiral came ashore where, on 10 January 1761, he died at his home in Hatchlands Park in Surrey. His body was taken to St. Michael’s Church, Penkivel, Cornwall where he was buried. The monument at the church begins:

Here lies the Right Honourable
Edward Boscawen,
Admiral of the Blue, General of Marines,
Lord of the Admiralty, and one of his
Majesty's most Honourable Privy Council.
His birth, though noble,
His titles, though illustrious,
Were but incidental additions to his greatness.[32]

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham and Prime Minister once said to Boscawen: "When I apply to other Officers respecting any expedition I may chance to project, they always raise difficulties, you always find expedients."


In 1742 Boscawen married Frances Glanville with whom he had three sons and two daughters. The youngest son, George succeeded his uncle as third Viscount Falmouth.


The town of Boscawen, New Hampshire is named after him, as are Boscawen Street and Boscawen Park in Truro, Cornwall.
Two ships and a Stone frigate of the Royal Navy have borne the name HMS Boscawen, after Admiral Boscawen, whilst another ship was planned but the plans were shelved before she was commissioned.

The stone frigate was a training base for naval cadets and in consequence three ships were renamed HMS Boscawen whilst being used as the home base for the training establishment.


"To be sure I lose the fruits of the earth, but then, I am gathering the flowers of the Sea" (1756)
"Never fire, my lads, till you see the whites of the Frenchmen's eyes."

Horace Walpole Letter To George Montagu, Esq. Arlington Street, May 30, 1751.

Mrs. Boscawen says I ought to write to you. I don’t think so. you desired I would, if I had any things new to tell you; I have not. Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe had quarrelled, about reputations before you went out of town. I suppose you would not give a straw to know all the circumstances of a Mr. Paul killing a Mr. Dalton, though the town, who talks of any thing, talks of nothing else. Mrs. French and her Jeffery are parted again. Lady Orford and Shirley married: they say she was much frightened; it could not be for fear of what other brides dread of happening, but for fear it should not happen.

My evening yesterday was employed, how wisely do You think? in trying to procure for the Duchess of Portland a scarlet spider from Admiral Boscawen. I had just seen her collection, which is indeed magnificent, chiefly composed of the spoils of her father’s, and the Arundel collections. The gems of all sorts are glorious. I was diverted with two relics of St. Charles the Martyr; one, the pearl you see in his pictures, taken out of his ear after his foolish head was off; the other, the cup out of which he took his last sacrament. They should be given to that nursery of nonsense and bigotry, Oxford.
Notes for Frances Evelyn GLANVILLLE
Frances Boscawen was born in 1719 in St. Clere, the only child of Frances Glanville and William Evelyn. William took his wife’s name upon marriage, giving young Frances the last name Glanville. Little is known of her youth and development.

In 1742, Frances married Edward Boscawen, a noted Admiral who later became General of the Marines. Edward’s occupation would prove to be crucial to his wife’s development as a writer. Many of her early letters were written while her husband was away at sea. The couple had five children; two of her sons died tragically while traveling. Frances is known for being a notable domestic and had a reputation as an ideal wife and mother.

After her husband’s death in 1761, Frances became an important hostess of Bluestocking meetings. She was close friends with Elizabeth Montagu, often thought of as “Queen of the Blues”, who was also a hostess of these events. Frances took on the role of typical Bluestocking hostess, in that she used her home to facilitate the exchange of ideas, but published little of her own writing.

Most of Frances’ letters were published after her death in 1805, particularly in William Roberts’ biography of Hannah More (1844). Her letters to her husband, preserved by her family, were published largely in a collection called Admiral’s Wife (1940). A second compilation of her letters was published in 1943, entitled Admiral’s Widow. Most of her letters, however, remain unpublished.

From Wikipedia:

Frances Evelyn Boscawen (née Glanville) (23 July 1719 – 26 February 1805) was known as a literary hostess, correspondent and member of the Bluestockings Society.

Frances Evelyn Glanville was born on 23 July 1719 at St Clere in Kent. In 1742 she married Edward Boscawen (1711–1761). When Edward's work in the navy took him away from home Frances sent him passages from her journal, some of which were later published.


Their children were:

Edward Hugh Boscawen (13 Sept 1744- 1774)

Frances Boscawen (7 March 1746 - 14 July 1801); she married 5 July 1773, aged 27, Admiral Hon. John Leveson-Gower (11 July 1740 - 28 August 1792), younger son of John Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl Gower and half-brother of the 1st Marquess of Stafford and had several children, five sons and two daughters. The heirs male descending of this marriage are in remainder to the earldom of Gower and the baronetcy only.

Elizabeth later Duchess of Beaufort (28 May 1747 Falmouth, Cornwall - 15 June 1828 Stoke Gifford, Gloucestershire); she married 2 January 1866 the Duke of Beaufort at St. George's Church, St. George Street, Hanover Square, London and had eight sons and four daughters with him.[5] She may have been the "Lady in Blue" painted by Thomas Gainsborough.[6]
William Glanville Boscawen (11 August 1749 - 21 April 1769) died aged 19.

George, born 6 May 1758, succeeded his uncle as third Viscount Falmouth in 1782. All the future Viscounts Falmouth and two earls Falmouth are descended from his two sons.

After Boscawen's death in 1761, Frances returned to her London house at 14 South Audley Street, where she became an important hostess of Bluestocking meetings. Her guests included Elizabeth Montagu, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Frances Reynolds, Elizabeth Carter, and later Hannah More, who described her as 'sage' in her 1782 poem The Bas Bleu, or, Conversation, published in 1784.[7] Her widowhood inspired Edward Young's 1761 poem Resignation.[1] She "was widely known in literary London as a model letter writer and conversationalist, prized for her wit, elegance, and warm heart," according to a present-day scholar.

Frances died at home in London 26 February 1805.

Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard

Published: 04 April 2008

Almost everything the sane man needs to know about Bluestockings is to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. The essentials of the long entry are as follows: the term "originated in connexion with the reunions held in London about 1750, at the houses of Mrs Montague, Mrs Vesey and Mrs Ord, who exerted themselves to substitute for the card playing which then formed the chief recreation at evening parties, more intellectual modes of spending the time, including conversation on literary subjects, in which eminent men of letters took part. Many of those who attended eschewed ‘full dress’; one of these was Mr Benjamin Still-ingfleet, who habitually wore grey or ‘blue’ worsted instead of black silk stockings. Admiral Boscawen derisively dubbed the coterie ‘the Blue Stocking Society’ (as not constituting a dressed assembly). The ladies were at first called Bluestockingers, Blue Stocking Ladies, and at length, about 1790, when the actual origin of the term was remembered by few, Blue Stockings Hence, of women, having or affecting literary tastes; literary, learned."

The lexicographers of the 1933 edition of the OED should perhaps have stressed that here blue is the blue of whippets, that is grey, for blue as we generally understand it now was very much the colour of servants’ uniforms. There is not much more to be said, other than that in the 19th century, Bluestocking was a dismissive term for a young woman who spent more time with her books than making herself marriageable, and as an excuse for an older woman’s lack of a husband; in the 20th century it has suggested both an educated frump and the suspicion that a woman might be lesbian.

There is some irony in the coincidence that, in the very week when English universities announced that Women’s Studies are to be discontinued as an academic discipline worthy of a degree (only 10 students remain devoted to it, in only one university, and that one not surprisingly an upgraded polytechnic), the National Portrait Gallery opened a new exhibition devoted to the Bluestockings of the 18th century.

Its curators, women, call it Brilliant Women; they blow feebly on the dying embers of feminism, their subjects the foremothers (as they put it) of Germaine Greer, the forgotten formidable women who, in the Age of Reason, were wealthy enough to open their houses to the literati of their day. Their unquestioning implication is that all these women were intellectually brilliant, but, recalling the praise that Vasari lavished on the charming but unimportant woman painter Sofonisba Anguisciuola two centuries earlier — "most excellent in painting most gifted her portraits ...done with care and spirit appear to be breathing and absolutely alive wanting in nothing save speech" — I suspect that if these women were thought brilliant in their day, it was less for any achievement than that they were women pursuing activities not much expected of them. Sofonisba was no more than adequate as a jobbing painter, and Lavinia Fontana, a generation later, was a great deal worse, yet both were praised by their male contemporaries as brilliant woman worthy of patronage from pope and prince, but this was simply men’s response to that then rare and curious phenomenon, the woman painter. The esteem of their contemporaries should not influence our judgment now.

Of course, in their 18th-century day, it must still have seemed remarkable to men that Angelica Kauffmann painted, that Catharine Macaulay wrote — over two decades — an eight-volume History of England, and that Mary Wollstonecraft was a political force battling for the rights of women, but to us, now, have any of them quite the renown of Reynolds and Gainsborough, Johnson and Gibbon, Burke and Paine? Is not our judgment always, when we compare the achievements of women with those of men, distorted by astonishment, not that they have done so well but that they have done at all? I am reminded of the adage: "A sow may whistle, though it has an ill mouth for it." Would it have made the slightest difference to any of their chosen fields had all three, instead, cultivated gardens, and their friends continued to play cards? What can have been so intellectual in any true sense about the conversation at their informal gatherings? Their contemporaries Fielding and Johnson gave the game away, the first with his "Scandal is the best sweetener of tea" (the favoured drink of Bluestockings), and the second in an exchange with Boswell in which the old man observed after just such a gathering, "Well, we had a good talk," to which his biographer replied, "Yes, sir, you tossed and gored several persons." In a remarkable instance of pot and kettle, Johnson said of Macaulay that she should redden her own cheeks rather than blacken other people’s characters.

I can quite believe that these women were, in their various ways, worthy of interest at the time, but I do not believe that men have conspired to suppress their memory. If we have forgotten Catharine Macaulay’s History of England, it is because the other Macaulay, Thomas Babington, covered the same ground in his equally magisterial work of the mid-19th century, he in turn forgotten in the shadow of Trevelyan, Ogg and Plumb — that is the way of things for all historians. Kauffmann, on the other hand, is always included in relevant exhibitions, and Wollstonecraft is now never neglected in any discussion of the rights of men and women and the equality of the sexes. If other Bluestockings have sunk deep into obscurity, it is not because they were women, but because, if they were brilliant at all, they were not brilliant enough.

It is this that explains the near oblivion of the women identified as The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain in an absurd speculative painting by Richard Samuel in hope of furthering his career, but so weak in portraiture that the women could not recognise their likenesses. In this appear from left to right, Elizabeth Carter, a classical scholar whose reputation lasted just into the 20th century, Anna Letitia Barbault, poet and writer, with Angelica Kauffmann seated at her easel; in the centre stands Elizabeth Sheridan, arguably the greatest English singer of her day and a strenuous supporter of Charles Fox; and to the right, Charlotte Lennox, novelist and advocate of "Studies proper to a Woman", Hannah More, dramatist and writer, Elizabeth Montague, literary critic, Elizabeth Griffith, novelist and playwright, and, seated with a writing tablet on her lap, Catharine Macaulay. Of all these, only Kauffmann’s name might trigger recognition from an educated man on the Clapham omnibus.

Are things different today? Apparently not. The curators of this exhibition, advancing their thesis into contemporary times, can identify for the Clapham-bound traveller only Germaine Greer, but Lord knows as a muse of what. To me, even if she is the author of one of the two great unread books of the 20th century, in the casual and suppositious scholarship of her writings and the blustering and bullying tactics of her debate, she is very different from the Bluestockings of my young day, and I do not think her worthy of the title. Of the nine female vice-presidents of the British Academy, Bluestockings all, I have no doubt, right up to their suspender belts, no commuter from Clapham is ever likely to have heard. Shall I suggest Janet Street-Porter?

Sandy Nairne, director of the NPG, has opined that Bluestockings "are an excellent subject" for the gallery to explore — and so they may be, but this exhibition is absurdly small and gives the impression of three weeks’ work by a couple of undergraduates with access to Wikipedia and an indulgent tutor. It shows us nothing that is a masterpiece, but much that, apart from likeness as a portrait, is of scant value as a work of art. This is indeed jobbing portraiture at its worst. It is a long time since my reaction to a picture was a burst of laughter, but it happened here, in front of the amazingly Plain Jane that Catharine Macaulay was in her mid-forties, shortly before she swapped her protector, then in his mid-seventies, for marriage to a lusty young seaman of 21; an honest view of her it may have been, but the painter made her look ridiculous as well as plain. Even the portrait of Madame de Staël by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun (and what is the relevance in this context of a French portrait of a Swiss sitter? — the Swiss provenance, the de Saussure family, is nevertheless particularly intriguing) is weak and grotesquely dis-proportionate; the poor woman was known for her unlovely face rather than her massive thighs.

The prevalence in the NPG of paintings that are of wretched quality yet have important documentary quality presents it with the recurring problem that any exhibition of historic figures that it may choose to mount may well be, as here, wholly unrewarding in aesthetic terms, no matter how important or interesting the subject. The supposedly brilliant women were not well served by the painters of their day and no honest critic could argue a contrary view. The catalogue is even worse. As is now customary, it is a book rather than a catalogue, but as a book it is little more than an adolescent student’s essay, a toe-in-feminist-waters thing, a two-page spread by an amateur in the Saturday Guardian, the tone polemical, and too meagre ever to be a work of reference. A book of brief lives of Bluestockings, whether exhibited or not, would have been infinitely more valuable. How odd, for example, not to have told us more of Elizabeth Sheridan, first wife of the dramatist, a consumptive creature of ineffable beauty and unrivalled voice as well as a thirst for politics, and why not more of Catharine Macaulay, who seems more a woman of our times than her own? In their book the curators quote a feeble verse from the Monthly Review of 1774 naming other women as the Muses — Brooks, Aikin, Greville and Wheatley; of these, Aikin is explained in a distant footnote, but not a word is written of the remaining three. Who was the Mrs Ord listed as a Bluestocking in the OED? And why not a note on the Admiral Edward Boscawen, husband of the Frances Boscawen whose portrait is included in the exhibition (can this weak and very English-seeming thing really be by Ramsay at the age of 35, or any age, for that matter?); as the admiral it was who coined the word Bluestocking, surely Old Dreadnought or Wry-necked Dick, as he was known to his men, deserved to be included?

A little academic rigour, some shrewd editorial advice and a stronger sense of purpose might have made something of this project; as it is, neither the exhibition nor the book amounts to anything.

Brilliant Women is at the National Portrait Gallery (020 7306 0055) until 15 June. Daily 10am-6pm (Thursday and Friday until 9pm). Admission free (

Brilliant Women: Bluestockings
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE
Last Modified 8 Apr 2016Created 28 Jan 2018 using Reunion for Macintosh