If you step into the Breakfast Room at Rienzi you might come across two guests of the house – Sir Francis and Lady Dashwood have been residing there for the past few months. Sir Francis and Lady Dashwood at West Wycomb Park, by Nathaniel Dance from 1776, is part of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Collection, a collection of fine art on permanent display at the MFAH, and is on temporary loan to Rienzi.
We are lucky to host such a prominent couple at the museum. Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, was an infamous socialite in the days of “libertinism;” he was known for his extravagant parties and his practical jokes, and he was a devoted art enthusiast. He is most notorious for having founded the Hellfire Club, an exclusive circle of British gentlemen who met on the grounds of his estate and shared an interest in questionable activities. (The West Wycombe Caves where these meetings took place are now privately owned, but still available for visits.)
The couple is seated on the grounds of their estate, West Wycomb Park, in Buckinghamshire, England. Elegantly dressed for an afternoon outing, the Baronet is pictured alongside his wife who sits “tatting” lace in her lap, while a little black dog sits at their feet. Their storied home is shown in far the background, with one of many classical structures off to one side. Dashwood designed the home to be something of an 18th-century entertainment complex – complete with a “Temple of Music” and cascading man-made waterways. It was also where he displayed a lavish collection of art purchased while travelling abroad. The couple probably feel quite at home at Rienzi; the building itself, completed between 1740 and 1800, demonstrates both Palladian and Neoclassical architecture, and some interior design by Robert Adam. The estate was given to the National Trust of the UK in 1943 and remains in the care of the Dashwood family.
The painter of this endearing portrait is a similarly interesting character, and not surprisingly, a friend of the colorful Sir Francis. Nathaniel Dance was a successful history and portrait painter but gave up painting professionally upon inheriting a fortune in 1776, the year of this painting. He later married a rich widow, became a Baronet and a member of Parliament.