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Miss Ellis as a Young Lady

John Downman (1750-1824)


Signed and dated 1797

Chalk and watercolour

8 ¼ x 6 ½ inches

'Chris Beetles Summer Show', 2021, No 2

Mary-Anne Ellis (1778-1855) was the daughter and sole heir of Thomas Ellis of Rolleston, north of Exeter, in Devon. Following his death, she became the ward of Dr Hugh Downman of Exeter, a physician and man of letters, and a relative of John Downman.

In 1799, Mary-Anne Ellis married John Torriano Houlton, who was a Captain in the 1st Wilts Militia, and later a Colonel in the 1st Somerset Militia. Together they would have 15 children. Following their marriage, they lived initially at Mamhead Cottage in the grounds of Oxton House, south of Exeter, which belonged to the antiquary and topographer, the Reverend John Swete. In 1802, they received a visit there from the antiquary and topographer, John Britton, who would recollect the event in his Autobiography of 1850:

[Houlton] was then seated in a delightful villa, Mamhead Cottage, near Exeter, where, with a young and handsome wife, he seemed to be in a sort of terrestrial paradise, with everything lovely and loveable about him. He was a fine specimen of the young gentleman, and had married a young heiress with a good fortune.

The couple soon settled at Houlton’s estate of Grittleton, in Wiltshire, which had been bequeathed to him by an uncle, Admiral Houlton. Then, in 1806, on the death of his father, they moved to the estate of Farleigh Hungerford, in Somerset, and set about enlarging Farleigh House in the Neo-Gothic style. The Irish poet, Thomas Moore, was a frequent guest at Farleigh and, in his journal for April 1834, wrote of ‘A pretty house, beautiful girls, hospitable host and hostess, excellent cook, good champagne and moselle, charming music: what more could a man wish?’

Farleigh Hungerford would remain Mary-Anne’s home for the rest of her life and, though she died in London in 1855, was buried in its cemetery. The Houltons gave up Farleigh House in 1899, when Sir Edward Houlton died with no male heir.

John Downman produced at least four drawings of Mary-Anne Houlton (née Ellis), of which the present example is the second. The first – a half-length – had been produced in 1794, when Downman also drew Mrs Downman, the wife of Mary-Anne’s guardian. In 1801, he produced both a pen and ink drawing of Mary-Anne (British Museum) and a double portrait of her and her husband during a visit to Mamhead Cottage.

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