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Oil painting - Brunetta and Phillis (Steel, 'The Spectator', no. 80)
  • Brunetta and Phillis (Steel, 'The Spectator', no. 80)
    Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834
  • Enlarge image

Brunetta and Phillis (Steel, 'The Spectator', no. 80)

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    late 18th century to early 19th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Physical description

Oil painting

Place of Origin

Britain (painted)


late 18th century to early 19th century (painted)


Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 9.875 in approx., Width: 11 in approx., :

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Extract from Parkinson, Ronald, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860. Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1990. p.xviii.

John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) was the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He entered the family business, but his early enthusiasms were for gardening and the collecting of Dutch and Flemish prints. He retired from business at the age of 40, by which time he had begun collecting predominantly in the field of modern British art. He told Richard Redgrave RA, then a curator in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) of his intention to give his collection to the nation. The gallery built to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site, and all concerned saw the Sheepshanks Gift as forming the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art. Sheepshanks commissioned works from contemporary artists, bought from the annual RA summer exhibitions, but also bought paintings by artists working before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. The Sheepshanks Gift is the bedrock of the V&A's collection of British oil paintings, and served to encourage many other collectors to make donations and bequests.

Historical significance: Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) was a highly prolific painter, book illustrator and designer. After his father's death in 1770 he began his working life apprenticed to a Huguenot silk weaver. At the completion of his apprenticeship in 1777 he entered the Royal Academy Schools, and there struck up life-long friendships with the sculptor John Flaxman and with William Blake. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1778 until his death in 1834, and from 1778 also began to produce illustrations for various publishers and magazines such as the Ladies' Magazine. He sometimes exhibited the original designs for such illustrations at the Royal Academy exhibitions. In his day he was highly respected as a history painter in oil, but the V&A collections of drawings and watercolours reflect his reputation during the 19th century predominantly as an illustrator, as well as a designer of a multitude of objects such as silver salvers to funerary monuments. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Stothard took 'advantage of the opportunities afforded by publishing and the industrial arts, while maintaining a reputation in the more respectable reaches of high art'. For example Stothard exhibited works on a grander scale than was his norm for Bowyer's 'Historic Gallery' (1790-1806). But many of the oils now in the V&A are on a modest scale and are perhaps designs for printed illustrations, rather than 'finished' history paintings. Stothard played a respected part in the art world of his day, and from 1812 until his death at the age of seventy-nine he held the post of librarian of the Royal Academy.

Anna Eliza Bray [Mrs Bray], in Life of Thomas Stothard, R.A., 1851 (p.123) provides a useful description of the events depicted in this painting; "Amongst Stothard's most characteristic works, may be named his playful and delicately combined compositions from the Rape of the Lock, and his picture from the Spectator, where in the story of Phillis and Brunette [sic], the lady mortifies her proud rival, by making her slave wear a petticoat of the same silk which the other had chosen for her splendid dress at the ball. The calm, dignified, and somewhat haughty deportment of the triumphant lady; the fainting, with surprise and vexation, of the rival beauty, and the self-satisfaction of the gaily-bedecked slave; are admirably contrasted, and form... a perfect dramatic scene in pictorial art." A simple line engraving illustrated in Mrs Bray renders the composition upright rather than horizontal; the legend reads, "Spectator, vol, I., No. 80. The Rival Beauties, Phillis and Brunette. Published in 1803".

The story was originally recounted in The Spectator, no.80 (Friday, June 1, 1711); the tale of Phillis and Brunetta, "two Rivals for the Reputation of Beauty". The story has been analysed in a number of recent discussions of race and gender, including Joseph R. Roach, Cities of the dead, 1996 (pp.30-31), who provides a useful summary of the story; "Vying with one another for the attentions of the marriage-able bachelors in London, both [Phillis and Brunetta] succeed after an intense campaign, waged with beautiful gowns and strategic flirtations, in marrying wealthy West Indian sugar planters, next-door neighbors in Barbados, whither the newly-weds sail. Once there, the jealousy of Phillis and Brunetta escalates with every provincial ball. The former seems to steal a march on the latter, Addison relates, when a ship from London arrives carrying 'a Brocade more gorgeous and costly than had ever before appeared in that Latitude'. Phillis, the consignee, gloats and preens. Brunetta fumes and rages until a remnant of the dreaded brocade falls into her hands; she then appears the the 'publick Ball in a plain black Silk Mantua, attended by a beautiful Negro Girl in a Petticoat of the same Brocade with whhich Phillis was attired'. Phillis swoons. She then flees the ball in chagrined despair, to depart the West Indies forever on the next ship home."

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'Brunetta and Phillis (Steele, The Spectator, no.80)' by Thomas Stothard. Great Britain, ca. late 18th, early 19th century.


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Fans; Women




Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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