Sir Joshua Reynolds, well accustomed to painting beautiful women beautifully, was so pleased with one picture in particular that he kept it hanging in his studio till the day of his death. "It is the best I ever painted," he said.
The picture is still extant. It shows a young girl, half-kneeling, half-sitting, in a flowing robe of the period, to which a turban and a scarf knotted round the waist give a semi-oriental air. She has a pointed, oval face, dark eyes, fine features, and an indescribable look of mingled thoughtfulness and fun.
This was Mary Horneck, "the Jessamy Bride," whose nature was as lovely as her face. That Reynolds was right in his estimation of the picture is evident from the fact that, sixty-three years after it was painted, a lady, who had owned a small engraving of it since she was a girl, met the original for the first time, and recognised her at once !
Mary Horneck was the younger daughter of Mrs. Kane Horneck. Her elder sister, known as "Little Comedy," was almost as beautiful as she; and as they were very well-born and comfortably off, they were well known, and very great favourites. When her portrait was painted Mary was only eighteen, and if she had needed anything to make her famous, it would have been supplied by Sir Joshua's painting and its success.
The Hornecks were quite an ordinary family; they were not specially preoccupied with art or literature, but lived the ordinary life of a well-to-do family who mixed in various societies. The girls were high-spirited, lovely, intelligent, full of fun, and altogether charming. Sir Joshua Reynolds had known them from babyhood, and when they were in London they were frequent guests at his house.
One day they were at a gathering there, when Sir Joshua came towards them, followed by a remarkably ugly man. He had a long neck, plain features, an enormously high forehead, and prominent eyes. He moved awkwardly, and spoke with embarrassment, although he was so finely clothed that his plainness became quite ridiculous. Sir Joshua presented him as "Dr. Goldsmith."
This was Oliver Goldsmith, the "Poor Poll" of Garrick, the butt of Boswell, the tolerantly regarded friend of Johnson. Always hard-up, getting through an enormous amount of work, for ever being crushed and snubbed by men not worth his little finger, lonely, with deeps of melancholy in his nature - this was "Goldy."
We know many good things of the Horneck girls, but nothing is so certain a proof of their sterling natures than that they made a close friend of Oliver Goldsmith, welcomed him into their family, and treated him as one of themselves. They were not, in the first place, attracted by his genius, for they were not sufficiently literary to be lion-hunters; he was everything which girls of their status are taught to find ridiculous; but through his ugliness and awkwardness, through his clumsy speech and incongruously fine clothes, they could see his rare character, the lovable, great-hearted man whose real self we can read in every line of his writings.
it is almost incredible that he should have been so misunderstood. His gayest and most harmless remarks were taken by the solid-minded Englishmen about him as the real sentiments of his heart. Perhaps the 1 famous instance of this - an instance so flagrant that even in his lifetime it Was only a spiteful few who believed it - occurred when he was in France, with the two Miss Hornecks and their mother. It will serve as an example of the way in which his sayings, his mock seriousness, the grave countenance with which he would make a joke - he had too much sense of the dramatic to spoil its point when it de-pended on mock gravity for its fun-misled the ponderous minds about him. In many, many other cases the mistake persisted, and was never cleared up.
Goldsmith in attendance. But when these exquisite girls, their faces and figures blooming with every grace, appeared on the balcony, everyone will agree how natural it was for Frenchofficers to be carried away by enthusiasm. They gazed up at the balcony, the crowds followed their gaze and looked, too, and at last every creature in sight was engaged in rapt admiration of the lovely visions. They, on their side, were well accustomed to being looked at, and received the tribute with the serenity that comes of combined good-breeding and a knowledge of beauty.
Who more delighted than the strangelooking, awkward gentleman with them ? He beamed upon the girls, upon the officers, upon the crowd, until the situation threatened to be prolonged to the verge of embarrassment. Then, putting on a tremendous frown, shrugging his shoulders with mock petulance, he relieved the tension by exclaiming, "Pooh ! Elsewhere I also have my admirers." And with a general laugh the moment passed by.
The beautiful sisters, Catherine and Mary Horneck. The younger was the original of
Sir Joshua Reynolds'famous picture, "The Jessamy Bride." and the devoted friend of
Oliver Goldsmith. She died in 1844, at the age of ninety-two
Front the picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the collection of the Earl of Normanton
And this, according to Boswell, was an ebullition of uncontrollable jealousy because they received more admiration than he did ! Could human stupidity further go?
But this friendship with the Hornecks, and especially his love and ad-mi r a t i o n for "The Jessamy Bride" (the Horneck nicknames were taken from popular prints of the day), gave Goldsmith the nearest approach to calm happiness he was ever to enjoy. Mary Horneck understood him through and through. She, almost alone among his friends, saw how thoroughly he was a boy. In those days ponderosity was the fashion - the days of Johnson. But Johnson could roll his great self down a hill for the joy of doing it, and quite delight Boswell by his condescension in so doing; while Goldsmith could not try to leap a pool without being put down for a vain fool. It was only the Jessamy Bride whose laughter had no sting in it. Goldsmith always fell into whatever water he was near; it seemed like a kind of fate. All the spectators used to find this highly ridiculous and diverting; but the Jessamy Bride laughed with him, not at him - and there is all the difference in the wide world.