Chinese export porcelain plate decorated en grisaille (or encre de chine or ink color) with a portrait of Maria Gunning (1733-1760) in the well with strands of pearls in her hair, wearing a short lace cape around her shoulders over a low-cut dress trimmed with lace and a large ribbon bow, futher pearls adorn her slashed sleeves, on a finely stippled ground with a narrow floral border, and scattered floral sprays in the Famille rose palette around the rim. Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry and a famous British beauty of her day, and her two sisters, Elizabeth (later Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll) and Catherine (later Mrs. Robert Travis), were the daughters of an impoverished Irish landowner John Gunning and the Hon. Bridget Burke, daughter of the sixth Viscount Mayo. They moved to England in 1750, and quickly became the toast of high society. Their combination of good looks and lack of sophistication had tremendous appeal. Contemporary writer Horace Walpole observed, “The world is still mad about the Gunnings; … There are mobs at their doors to see them get into their chairs; and people go early to get places at the theatres when it is known they will be there.” On an evening in May 1751, the whisper that “the Hibernian sisters” were to visit Vauxhall Gardens brought together a group of 8,000 eager spectators. The plate’s portrait of Maria Gunning is based on a pastel done by Francis Cotes (1726-1770) in 1751. Cotes’ portrait marked Maria’s arrival in London and also established his reputation as a fashionable portraitist at a critical juncture in his career. Mezzotint copies of the Cotes portrait were first made by the engraver James McArdell and advertised on the front page of the "London Advertiser." Several other engravers also produced copies from Cotes’ pastel, undoubtedly playing an important role in propagating the legend of Maria’s beauty and charm. The popularity of the Gunning sisters and the portability of their images resulted in the portrait engravings traveling to China for reproduction, and eventually all three sisters’ images were captured on Chinese export porcelain. Chinese enamelers developed ink-color decoration as a method of reproducing print images on porcelain for the western market. Dominated by black enamels and washes, ink-color decoration was first produced in the 1730s and remained popular throughout the 18th century. Often period documents refer to this decoration as "pencil'd," reflecting its use of fine brush strokes and black color. The Chinese enamelers faithfully copied the small dots of the original mezzotint for this example using black enamel.
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