Thomas Hickey 1741–1824
John Heath 1779
Oil paint on canvas
745 x 625 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Helena Beatrice Anderson to the National Gallery 1970; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1970
Inscribed in paint ‘T. Hickey 1779’ bottom left
Probably commissioned by Thomas Heath (1738/9–1811) of Hanley, Staffordshire, the sitter’s father; by descent to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sambrook John Anderson (1876–1941), London and Bath; bequeathed to his widow, Helena Beatrice Anderson (d.1970), Bath; bequeathed by her to the National Gallery, London, in 1970; immediately transferred to the Tate Gallery.
This portrait is signed and dated (bottom left) ‘T.Hickey 1779’, which indicates that it was created when the artist, the Irish-born portrait painter Thomas Hickey, was resident in the fashionable West Country spa town of Bath. The sitter is presented half-length, three-quarter face, looking to his right, with the whole likeness contained within a 'feigned' (painted) oval.
John Heath (1763/4–1823), known as James within the family, was the son of Thomas Heath (1738/9–1811) of Hanley, Staffordshire.1 He would have been fifteen or sixteen when this portrait was painted. He is shown in a conventional adult costume, with dark green jacket and pale yellow waistcoat, with a necktie and frill, and wears his own hair, fashionably unpowdered and shoulder-length. Hickey also painted a portrait of John Heath’s younger brother, William Heath (later the Reverend William Heath; 1766–1830), on the same format and apparently contemporaneously (the sitter appears to be about thirteen, which would correspond to a date of production of 1779). The portraits would presumably have been commissioned at the same time by the sitters' father, most likely while on a visit to Bath. Both portraits descended through the family although they were in separate hands by the twentieth century.2
Hickey was born and trained in Dublin and spent time in Rome and London before establishing some reputation as a portrait painter in the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1776–9. He was one of a number of portraitists who came to the city around this time hoping to take advantage of the market created by the departure from Bath in 1774 of the eminently successful Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88). Although Hickey was able to obtain commissions to paint some of Bath’s civic elite, his reputation as a portraitist was mixed. Whether from a lack of portrait business or from some other cause, Hickey suffered financial difficulties to the extent that in May 1779 he was declared bankrupt and had to spend several months in Fleet debtors’ prison in London.3 He subsequently moved to India in search of patronage. The present portrait, with the inscribed date of ‘1779’, may then have been one of his last works painted in Bath.
John Heath subsequently became a Doctor of Medicine and practised at Fakenham, Norfolk. The picture was with grandson of the sitter’s brother, the Reverend William Heath, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sambrook John Anderson.4 It was left in his will to his widow, Helena Beatrice Anderson to the National Gallery in 1970. Although accepted by the Trustees of the National Gallery it was immediately transferred to the Tate Gallery.5