woman; portrait; costume/uniform
Mary Davis (1742–1825) was born into an impoverished family and worked as a courtesan until she married Alexander Nesbitt, a wealthy banker. She became a well-known socialite and actress, and was the mistress of Augustus Hervey, the third Earl of Bristol. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Nesbitt invited Bristol to live with her in her Norwood home where this portrait was displayed. She eventually inherited the fortunes of both men and Norwood House became a meeting place for prominent politicians in the circle of King George III. During the French Revolution, she may have traveled to France, disguised as a man, to help restore the monarchy on behalf of the English Prime Minister.
Mrs. Nesbitt is here depicted in the guise of the mythological sorceress Circe, described by Homer as having seduced Odysseus and transformed men into captive animals. Her cup of magic potion is shown at left. This characterization may refer to her abilities as an actress to play a part but it also carries associations of the powerful position she created for herself. Like Circe, Mrs. Nesbitt used her charm, beauty, and intelligence to achieve notoriety and autonomy in a society that granted few freedoms to women.
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