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