The sitter here, Helen Thornycroft, of the family of sculptors (her mother too), chose to be a painter, and enrolled at the Academy schools in the wake of Martineau, who, six years her senior, was one of the first woman admitted there in 1862. Martineau exhibited a number of unidentified 'Heads' at the Dudley Gallery and at Suffolk Street in the 1860s and 70s, the first of which was at the Dudley in 1868 when Thornycroft would have been 26. Thornycroft is dressed daringly for the time, as a modern young woman in the early aesthetic style, against the prevailing fashion, her hair a la Grecque (she always wore her hair up, because of an accident as a girl when she caught it in the machinery of a steam engine her teenage brother Isaac was building and was "nearly scalped"). Martineau has delighted in the textures of this modern young woman's clothes, hair and skin, picking out the fur lining of the dress and the opaque gleam of the pearl earring against soft creams and browns.
Thornycroft set up her own studio in the 1880s, and became vice-president of the Society of Women Artists from 1899-1909.