Arthur Devis’s 1747 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Bull seems to depict a quite fashionable couple in the year of their marriage in what we presume to be their home. But closer analysis reveals that much of the work is likely a fiction, though the clothes they’re sporting–whether their own or imagined–remain fashionable.

About the Portrait

Arthur Devis was a successful and well-known practitioner of the genre of painting known as a ‘conversation piece,’ which is “an informal group portrait showing its subjects either conversing or engaged in some genteel pastime” (Baetjer 203). Devis was born in Preston, Lancashire, England in 1712. In the 1730s, he was an assistant in the studio of the famous Flemish painter Peter Tilleman. By 1737, Devis had become a portrait painter. In 1745, he established his own studio in London. This portrait was painted shortly thereafter and came just before his period of greatest productivity. According to Wikipedia, between 1748 to 1758, he received his greatest number of commissions for portraits, many showing sitters in landscapes.

As for the sitters, as Katherine Baetjer and Josephine Dobkin explain in their essay on the painting, Richard Bull was the second son of Sir John Bull and Elizabeth Bull of London and Ongar County, Essex, a village north of London. This portrait was commissioned by Richard Bull in 1747, which is also the year he married a widow named Mary Bennet. In 1747, Richard would have been 26, while Mary would have been 30. The couple both came from prosperous landed families. Mary’s family and first husband also came from Ognar. Mrs. Bull had a daughter and son from her first marriage, as well as two daughters with Richard (Baetjer 203); Devis later painted the couple again along with some of their children (Fig. 1).

Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bull and Family

Fig. 1 - Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bull and Family, undated. Oil on canvas; 67 x 54 cm (26.3 x 21 in). Preston: Harris Museum and Art Gallery, PRSMG : P746.. Source: ArtUK

Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). Mr. and Mrs. Bull, 1747. Oil on canvas; 67 x 54 cm. New York: New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, Conservation Center. Source: Wikimedia

About the Fashion

Mr. and Mrs. Bull are both fashionably dressed individuals of the late 1740s. Mr. Bull wears a pale brown frock coat that falls just below the knee with wide cuffs. His white waistcoat has pocket flaps and many small buttons with elaborate gold embroidery around the buttonholes, as well as on the cuffs and collar of his coat. He completes the look with buckled knee breeches and white hose with black shoes with large square buckles. He also wears a muslin shirt with a cravat.

Mrs. Bull is seen in panniers that are holding up the skirt of her satin robe out over her hips, and her seam is slightly puckered. True to the dress of the time, her bodice fits very tightly over her corset and is pleated at the sides of her V-shaped stomacher, which is decorated with ruching and rosettes made from the same fabric as her petticoat. According to the The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean;

“Mrs. Bull’s thoroughly English dress, with its close-fitting, tightly boned bodice, for example, was designed to enforce the rigid posture that was considered a proof of social status. She was bound in, forced to sit bolt upright.” (19)

The sitters in this painting are young, and the viewer can tell by the way they are dressed, as well as accessorized. Mr. Bull is not seen wearing a white powdered wig, as around this time it was going out of style with the younger men. He is well proportioned, with his breeches and stockings being smooth and unwrinkled. As Batjer and Dobkin note of Mrs. Bull, she “was approaching her thirtieth birthday in 1747, but does not look it. Her hair is arranged close to her head and covered by a cap with a pink ribbon” (207). She wears an impossibly sheer apron over her open petticoat. Richard and Mary were both from wealthy families, so they would be able to afford fine clothing.

Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dashwood

Fig. 2 - Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dashwood, 1750. Oil on canvas; 111 x 96.5 cm (44 x 38 in). Private Collection. Source: Pinterest

A Lady and Three Gentlemen around a Harpsichord

Fig. 3 - Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). A Lady and Three Gentlemen around a Harpsichord, ca. 1750. Oil on canvas; 128 x 102.8 cm (50.5 x 40.5 in). Private Collection. Source: Artvalue

Lady Juliana Penn

Fig. 4 - Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). Lady Juliana Penn, 1752. Oil on canvas; 91.8 x 79.1 cm (36.3 x 31.3 in). Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-201-2. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mr. and Mrs. Atherton

Fig. 5 - Arthur Devis (English, 1712-1787). Mr. and Mrs. Atherton, 1743. Oil on canvas; 92 x 127 cm (36.2 x 50 in). Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, WAG 1353. Source: ArtUK


Fig. 6 - Designer unknown. Mantua, 1747-65. White silk satin. chinoiserie embroidery, 'à disposition'. The Hague: Gemeentemuseum, 1006296. Source: Gemeente Museum

Batjer and Dobkin researched the setting of the work, which is less obvious than it seems. As the portrait was commissioned as a celebration of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bull, the sparely furnished interior of in which they sit was long thought to be theirs. But in 1750, Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood also commissioned a painting from Devis (Fig. 2), with an interior that looks almost identical to that of Mr. and Mr. Bull, other than the absence of the fine oriental carpet. Mrs. Bull and Mrs. Dashwood also wear very similar shiny gray satin gowns with pink petticoats and sheer aprons.  This suggests that both the room and the clothing are likely inventions or idealizations rather than strict records of the Bull’s actual dress and home. This is further confirmed by the fact that A Lady and Three Gentlemen around a Harpsichord (Fig. 3) also features a nearly identical setting.

Portraits of Lady Juliana Penn (Fig. 4) and Mr. and Mrs. Atherton (Fig. 5) further attest to the fashionability of the décor and attire. A surviving white silk mantua (Fig. 6) has the same silhouette and sheen of Mrs. Bull’s dress, though it lacks the open petticoat. Like Mr. Bull, Mr. Dashwood, as well as two of the gentlemen in figure 3 also seem to be sporting their natural hair; only one man seems to be wearing a powdered wig, as he may be older than the rest of the men.

Thus, in the portrait at least, Mr. and Mrs. Bull appear to be quite fashionable, as they are wearing up to date clothing of a fine quality, featuring elaborate detailing that would have been expensive.

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author