Reynolds 300: Portrait of Elizabeth Limeburner

Reynolds 300: Portrait of Elizabeth Limeburner

18 May 2023

Like the enigmatic smile on this young woman’s face, there is more to this portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds than meets the eye.

Elizabeth Limeburner (1731-1760) was the daughter of naval captain Thomas Limeburner (1696-1750) and Elizabeth Osmond Lee (1684-1769). On 5 July 1753, she married another naval captain called Joseph Hamar (c1710-1774).

This portrait was listed on The Box's database for years with the title 'Mrs Hamar’ and was often said to be a marriage portrait. We believe it was painted around 1748 however when Reynolds was running a studio in Dock (now Devonport). Elizabeth would have been about 15 at the time and unmarried. Could it have been a society portrait used to attract a husband instead? We can only make assumptions, but given the dates it would be more accurate to call it ‘Miss Limeburner’ rather than ‘Mrs Hamar‘ - and this is the title it's displayed with in our 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration' exhibition (24 Jun-29 Oct 2023).

Two years after they married, Joseph Hamar was appointed captain of HMS Eagle. One of his able seamen was a young James Cook - known today as the famous Captain Cook. The Eagle marked the beginning of the end of Hamar’s naval career but as Cook’s first-ever commanding officer he holds a unique place in history.

Roughly 12 years after she sat for this portrait Elizabeth sadly died. She would have only been in her late twenties and left behind a daughter of around five years old called Margaret (1754-1842).

Joseph Hamar remarried. When he died in 1774 Margaret would have been about 20. Although he left things to his second wife, his stepson and a servant, the person he made the biggest provision for was the daughter he’d had with Elizabeth. Margaret’s inheritance included furniture, household goods, artworks and books. With both her parents gone he made sure she was set up for life. She went on to marry and have a large family of her own, one branch of which settled in New Zealand.

I’m sure this image of Elizabeth with her kind face and beautiful silver dress must have been a poignant reminder to those who outlived her of a life cut short and a young woman who never got to see her child grow up.

It's also an example of how multi-layered a work of art can be, and how a portrait of one person can tell a range of stories once you start to unpack it.

Thanks to Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer