Joseph Highmore

Mr Oldham and his Guests


Not on display
Joseph Highmore 1692–1780
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1055 x 1295 mm
frame: 1235 x 1475 x 88 mm
Purchased 1948


This picture is among the most original works to have been produced in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, maintaining the intimate atmosphere of a small conversation piece in a life-size group portrait. Highmore painted it at the request of Nathaniel Oldham to commemorate a dinner party held at Oldham's home, to which he had arrived belatedly. According to the author and antiquarian, John Thomas Smith (1766-1833), who heard the story from his father, who had at one time owned the picture and was himself the godson of Mr Oldham:

Mr Oldham had invited three friends to dine with him at his house at Ealing; but being a famous and constant sportsman he did not arrive till they had dined; and then he found them so comfortably seated with their pipes over a bowl of negus, that he commissioned Highmore to paint the scene and desired that he might be introduced in it just as he then appeared (quoted in Einberg and Egerton 1988, p.47).

Mr Oldham, who has just arrived, stands at the extreme left of the painting, his arms folded over the top of the chair, his tricorn hat still on his head. He wears an expression of barely concealed amusement. In the centre, seated with his pipe and glass of negus, is a large, red-faced man, identified by Smith as a neighbouring farmer. At the right, dressed in black, is a local schoolmaster, his glassy eyed stare and slumped posture indicating that he has supped well. Between these two figures, peering out over his glass, is the third guest, Joseph Highmore, whom Oldham commissioned to paint the scene.

Nathaniel Oldham (active 1728-47), who had served with the British army in India, inherited a fortune, which enabled him to indulge his love of field sports and fine art. Little is known of his time in Ealing other than that he lived at Ealing House between 1728 and 1735, which was possibly the setting for this memorable dinner party. He and Highmore were close friends, one contemporary describing them as 'very intimate' (Einberg and Egerton, p.48). Highmore also painted a full-length portrait of Oldham as a huntsman, although this picture is now known only from an engraving.

Oldham, who was extravagant in his tastes, eventually fell into debt, apparently evading his creditors by seeking sanctuary in the court of St James. He was, however, eventually bankrupted and was imprisoned for debt in the King's Bench prison, where he is said to have died.

Partly because of the unusual format of this picture, and the way in which it differs from Highmore's other works, Mr Oldham and his Guests is difficult to date precisely on stylistic grounds. Although Highmore's exact age in the picture cannot be determined, he would appear to be around fifty years old. If that were so, the picture would have been painted in the early 1740s. The picture was almost certainly painted before 1747 when Oldham's collection of prints, books and drawings were auctioned from his address at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, either following or anticipating his bankruptcy.

Further reading:

Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery1988, pp.47-50, reproduced in colour

Martin Postle
June 2001

Display caption

This informal group portrait was painted for Nathaniel Oldham, to commemorate a dinner party at this home. Oldham came home from hunting so late that the friends he had invited to dinner ate without him. He found them relaxing with a bowl of hot wine. Oldham is shown on the far left. In the centre, holding a pipe, is a neighbouring farmer. His friend, a local school master, holds a blue and white bowl. Between them, wearing a red velvet cap, is Joseph Highmore himself, Oldham’s close friend who was commissioned to paint the scene.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

N05864 Mr Oldham and his Guests c. 1735–45

Oil on canvas 1055×1295 (41 1/2×51)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1948
PROVENANCE According to J.T. Smith, painted for Nathaniel Oldham and after his death (post 1747) given to a relative, from whom bt by the sitter's godson Nathaniel Smith, who still owned it c. 1777; ...; ‘Mr. Bellamy, linen draper in Queen Street’; ...; the Revd Theodore Williams, sold Stewart, Wheatley & Allard 2 May 1827 (1947 as ‘A Conversation over a Bowl of Punch at Old Slaughter's by Hogarth’); ...; Mrs Hannah, sold Sotheby's 21 July 1948 (71 as Hogarth) bt for the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Kenwood 1963(37)
LITERATURE James Caulfield, Portraits ... of Remarkable Persons, 1819, II, p.133; J.T.Smith, Nollekens and his Times, 1828, II, pp.217–20; DNB 1908, XIV (for Oldham); F. Antal, ‘Mr Oldham and his Guests by Highmore’, Burlington Magazine, XCI, 1949, pp.128–32, pl.6; Waterhouse 1953, p.137, pl.107, 1978, p.183, fig.145; F. Antal, Classicism and Romanticism, 1966; pp.167–73, fig.46 (reprint of 1949 article); Lewis 1975, I, pp.239–44, II, pp.464–5, no.121, III, fig.82

John Thomas Smith identified this conversation piece in 1827 as a picture ‘that had been for the first eleven years of my life in my sleeping room’ (he was born 1766), and described it as follows:
My father's account of this picture was that Mr Oldham had invited three friends to dine with him at his house at Ealing; but being a famous and constant sportsman he did not arrive till they had dined; and then he found them so comfortably seated with their pipes over a bowl of negus, that he commissioned Highmore to paint the scene and desired that he might be introduced in it just as he then appeared. A man on the right, with a white wig and black coat, was an old school-master; and one opposite to him a farmer, both of Ealing; another, in the middle, in a red cap was the artist, Highmore; and one with his hat on, behind the farmer's chair was Nathaniel Oldham.

According to Caulfield - who also had his information from J.T. Smith - Nathaniel Oldham served with the army in India in his youth, but retired on inheriting a fortune, to pursue his interests as an extravagant collector of curiosities, and as a patron of the arts and the turf. His enthusiasms eventually bankrupted him and he apparently died a debtor in the King's Bench prison. He is said to have been ‘very intimate’ with Highmore, who painted a full-length of him in green hunting attire. The fate of this portrait is unknown, but Faber's undated mezzotint after it suggests a date of c. 1740 or earlier (Lewis 1975, p.579, no.66, fig.180; reengraved by P. Grove for Caulfield 1819, facing p.133). The only firm dates on Oldham are that he owned Ealing House from 1728 until June 1735 (Middlesex CRO, Acc. 112/1), and that he appears to have been still living when the ‘Entire Collection of Prints, Books of Prints and Drawings of Nathaniel Oldham Esq., of Southampton Row, Bloomsbury’ was sold at Cox's 25–28 February 1747 (1746 O.S.).

According to Caulfield, Oldham took refuge from his creditors for a while within the sanctuary of the court of St James's, where he took to appearing in the refreshment room on Duck Island in St James's Park wearing eccentric costume and playing several instruments for the amusement of the guests. A portrait by Highmore believed to represent him doing this was formerly with Sabin (English Portraits, October–November 1976, no.12, repr.; sold Sotheby's 16 July 1986, lot 221, repr.).

Although dated c. 1750 by Antal and in Elizabeth Johnston's catalogue for the 1963 exhibition, the Tate Gallery picture almost certainly pre-dates Oldham's bankruptcy and the need to sell his collections. If Smith's account of the scene being set in Ealing is correct, one may have to accept an even earlier date for it. A portrait of such exceptional informality and forthrightness is difficult to date stylistically, although one should bear in mind that Highmore's style was formed by the mid-1720s, and that in 1735 he would have been in his forties, an age not incompatible with the somewhat wry self-portrait in this painting.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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