If you have visited Knole House near Sevenoaks, Kent, then you might have noticed a nude woman reclining on a chaise longue at the bottom of the stairs. This is a sculpture of Giovanna Baccelli by Giovanni Battista Locatelli. Baccelli was principal ballerina at the King’s Theatre Haymarket and mistress of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, the owner of Knole. He was a handsome, extravagant man with a string of mistresses but he thought highly of Baccelli and set her up in a suite of rooms at Knole. A few years later he commissioned Thomas Gainsborough to paint her full-length in a dynamic pose with the costume and heavy make-up she wore for one of her roles. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 an embarrassing incident was narrowly avoided. Gainsborough had also painted the Duke and the picture was going to be shown at the same exhibition. To exhibit a Duke alongside his mistress would have been a flagrant breach of decorum and the Duke’s portrait was withdrawn, we presume for that reason.
When the Duke was appointed ambassador to France, Baccelli accompanied him to Paris and she was a great success as a ballet dancer at the Paris Opéra. It is said that when he was awarded the Order of the Garter she performed with the blue ribbon of the Garter tied around her head. They became friends of Queen Marie-Antoinette but as the French Revolution unfolded they returned to Knole. They separated the same year but remained friends and the Duke married a respectable heiress with a dowry of £140,000. According to an inventory of Knole in 1799, the statue of Baccelli was rechristened ‘A Naked Venus’ and moved to a less prominent position and she was given an annual pension of £400 and left her son to be brought up by the Duke as a gentleman.
The painting by Gainsborough is now at Tate Britain and is a wonderful example of his mature style with its lightly flicked brushstrokes and immediate sense of delicate animation. Accounts at the time describe her as charming rather than beautiful and her character was thought to have been captured by Gainsborough. As one contemporary critic wrote, the portrait was, ‘as the Original, light airy and elegant’.