(b. 1646, London, d. 1691, London)
Bridget Holmes, a Nonagenarian Housemaid1686
Oil on canvas, 225,4 x 148,6 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor
The painting is signed (apparently strengthened): I.R. PI.t. and inscribed lower left: BRIDGET. HOLMES./ETAs SUAE:96. A:D:1686:
The name of the sitter and her advanced age (96) are apparent from the inscription. Bridget Holmes was in fact a 'Necessary Woman' who lived to the age of one hundred. Her period of royal service began during the time of Charles I and continued into the reign of William III and Mary II. She is shown playing a game with a Page of the Backstairs.
Riley was appointed Principal Painter to William III and Mary II jointly with Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1688. As a native-born artist he holds an important place in the development of English portrait painting and there is a line of descent that extends from him through Jonathan Richardson the Elder to Thomas Hudson, who was the first master of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yet his official portraits were not always very convincing; a pupil, Thomas Murray, recorded Charles II's remarks on seeing his portrait: 'Is this like me? (oddsfish) then I'm an ugly fellow.' By contrast, Riley seems to have had more success with less formal commissions. As Waterhouse observed, 'It is obvious that Riley was most at home below stairs.' Indeed, two such portraits are known: A Scullion and Katherine Elliot (Royal Collection), the latter painted in conjunction with Johann-Baptist Closterman.
The present portrait is conceived on a monumental scale with all the props (notably the curtain and the vase with a relief of dancing nymphs) of fashionable portraiture, a view that runs counter to the social status of the sitter. It is possible that some satirical or moral comment was intended by this juxtaposition. The vase has been identified by Timothy Clifford as one occurring in a print of 1582 by Cherubino Alberti, after a fresco by Polidoro da Caravaggio on the façade of the Palazzo Milesi in Rome (Via della Maschera d'Oro). Reynolds also used the vase in the background of a number of portraits. The subject of this portrait by Riley is comparable with certain contemporary Dutch paintings (for example, An Interior with a Sleeping Maid and her Mistress by Nicolaes Maes - London, National Gallery). The colouring of the portrait is characteristically rich, but the drawing is unusually accurate for this artist.