I didn’t know that I would meet Eliza Linley one week before Christmas, on a rainy, overcast Saturday morning in greater Philadelphia. I was at home with cable news droning on in the background while I read through slush pile submissions for the literary journal that I launched several years ago. Having received my booster shot a couple of days earlier, and aware that I had been spending too much time in the house, I decided to venture to the Philadelphia Art Museum to check out some art and be around people and have a cup of coffee and see the Rocky statue.
The pandemic has become a scapegoat for my tendencies to isolate. I like hibernating during northeastern winters, regardless, and this year I also turned 35. I’ve struggled to come to terms with taking a turn towards middle age. Maybe I’m simply reflecting during uncertain times. Maybe I’m throwing a bit of a pity party for my youth that continues fading into a more distant past. Maybe I’m just a single 35-years-old man in the beginnings of another winter under pandemic.
I hitched a ride with a friend who was driving to center city, about 30 minutes south from the Delaware River town that I’ve recently called home. Once outside the museum, I walked halfway around the building to find an open entrance. I can’t understand why limiting the number of entrances to public spaces has become one of responses to COVID: everyone ends up inside anyway and then there are more people cued at fewer locations. But I digress: there have been countless social changes made in response to the pandemic that I don’t expect to ever understand.
I took the elevator to the third floor, figuring I’d start with the Medieval and European Art and finish with the more contemporary work on the first floor, should I have the energy. An internal countdown begins when I step into a museum. Somewhere around the two- or three-hour mark of inundating myself with paintings and sculptures and drawings and photographs, I begin to tire: there’s only so much I can drink in before I become oversaturated and need to leave.
I found myself alone in many of the galleries. Maybe the museum was eerily quiet because of Christmas, or because of the raging pandemic (even if the Flyers have continued to pack the Wells Fargo Center just down the road), or because people simply don’t care much about art anymore.
By the time I reached the second floor, moving from one gallery to the next without much intrusion, I noticed Elizabeth (Eliza to those closest to her). Seeing her from across the room, I was drawn to Eliza like an insect to a bug zapper, approaching her in that manner.
Painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1775, Eliza, 21, is vibrantly pale skinned against a dark, ominous background. Her head is turned right, body forward. The direction in which she looks is colored midnight black. Behind her left shoulder, on the other side, has a hint of gray. Her left cheek is rosy in complexion—a natural flush, perhaps, from rarely sitting still. Her hazel eyes are intent on whatever she might be looking at (or for), lips small and pink, eyebrows long and thin. She looks equal parts defeated, plotting, and innocent. But the blackness of the direction in which she stares suggests some form of distress. It’s a strange mix, admittedly, and it is this mystery that brings her to life. I have a curious urge to introduce myself to her—to get to know her.
Eliza was a singer, and a quite famous one at that, known as Britain’s national musical voice. She was the Taylor Swift of the late eighteenth century, weaving together the threads of a successful public persona—art, voice, life. Her sound was distinctive, and she associated herself with Handel, when he was as well-regarded as anyone in England. Eliza’s father, Thomas Linley, was a composer: Eliza had musical talent in her blood with the connections to boot. By the time of Gainsborough’s painting, Eliza had become one of the most prominent sopranos in the country.
Late eighteenth century singers were part of the celebrity culture we’re familiar with today. Eliza was famous to the extent that the playwright Samuel Foote wrote the 1771 play The Maid of Bath about her life. At the age of 16, she was inappropriately pursued by an older military man, Thomas Matthews, which caused her to leave for France with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a family friend and playwright who she would eventually marry. When the two returned to England, Sheridan was forced to fight in two duels with Matthews.
Her expression—and downright beauty—stayed with me as I made my way between galleries. Would her and I have anything in common if a wormhole were to open that allowed us to speak? I returned to her a couple of times before I left the floor, and then the museum.
After Eliza married Sheridan, she would later write to him that “It was not your person that gained my affection…it was that delicacy, that tender compassion, that interest which you seemed to take in my welfare, that were the motives which induced me to love you.” Sheridan, at first, did not allow Linley to pursue her musical career, but he was happy to take advantage of her fame, writing his first play, The Rivals, in 1774-75, which only expanded upon Maid of Bath. He then “capitalized on demand for her by marketing a series of exclusive private subscription concerts.” Sheridan’s behavior was like Eliza’s father, who had exploited Eliza’s talent when she was a teenager.
Ultimately, it wasn’t seen as appropriate for wives or daughters of a gentleman to perform publicly. But exceptions were made for Eliza; she began making exclusive performances after having been married to Sheridan for a few years. Commentary on Eliza’s voice—“of sweetness, expression, and lack of affectation, was applied also to her behavior.” Numerous members of the elite commented on how impressive it was that Eliza had not been corrupted by high society. Fanny Burney, for example, “had sagely observed on first acquaintance [with Elizabeth Linley] that there was great personal ‘merit’ in a young woman so beautiful and talented who managed to preserve her modesty and good sense. Encountering her again six years later, in 1779, Franny was agreeably surprised that high society had still not corrupted her.” Ultimately, Eliza wanted to escape city life. And she often would, leaving her husband behind in the city.
Eliza was with me in spirit when I took the northbound train, which chugged away from Philadelphia alongside graffitied walls that lined the train tracks. I was thinking about a woman who had been dead for 229 years. Was this Linley’s power, and how she had so many suitors? That somehow, a man named Thomas Gainsborough was able to capture Eliza’s essence in a portrait—to capture her alluring features, both physical and otherwise? How many, like me, had been drawn to Eliza in such a curious way?
This, too, is the magic of a museum. This visit was not about seeing works by Renoir, Monet and Manet, Degas, and Cézanne. This trip was not about Picasso or Rembrandt. And it was certainly not about Andy Warhol. This trip was about a woman named Eliza Linley, who I met by chance.
I’m going to visit Eliza next year. This time we’ll meet in Washington, D.C., on Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue. She will have aged about a decade, 31-years-old, but look just as elegant. Eliza certainly doesn’t like residing in Washington. She didn’t like London and resolved to escape the city. “God knows London has no Charms for me,” she wrote, “and if I could draw the very few left to me that are Dear to my Heart around me, I should like to rest in some quiet Corner of the World and never see it again.” She even pleaded with Sheridan: ‘Take me out of the whirl of the world, place me in the quiet and simple scenes of life I was born for.” It’s ironic that a woman who wanted to be free of “the whirl of the world” should be made immortal on the walls of some of the most visited art museums in the world.
In the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the Main Floor in Gallery 59, Eliza merges into a pastoral landscape, body curving into the trees behind her. She sits on a rock, dress pink, sky gray blue. The focus remains on her face, as it does in Gainsborough’s portrait that resides in Philadelphia. “There is a hint of romantic melancholy in her eyes,” reads the collection’s catalog, “with their slightly indirect gaze.” Public and private life, so often in complete entanglement, make it challenging to gain an intimate look into the life of someone who had such celebrity. Eliza was idealized. It’s clear that much of her simply wanted to be left alone. And more than two centuries after her sudden death to tuberculosis, she is still not able to rest in peace.
Eliza was never able to fulfill her “desire for conjugal retrenchment in the country,” wrote Nicola Kalinsky. This is her beauty and her tragedy. And this is the museum: an offering of incomplete stories of complex human experience that has us, as voyeurs to the deceased or distant, look ourselves in the mirror, wondering about our own unfinished work, our own unfinished lives. Eliza is attractive because of her mystery, sure, but she is attractive, too, because of her drive to find authenticity, to find peace, to find contentment. Maybe this is what makes any of us timeless, human. The details are different, but the feelings are uncannily similar.
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, ‘Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays,’ is due out in early 2022 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.