This is the oil sketch for Hone's satirical painting The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception (Dublin, The National Gallery of Ireland), a picture that caused one of the greatest art scandals of the British eighteenth-century art world. Nathaniel Hone submitted the finished picture to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1775. The Academy's Hanging Committee rejected it on the grounds that it was offensive to one of its female members, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). However, the main object of Hone's satire was not Kauffman but the Academy's president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92).
The present oil sketch is painted on a wooden panel and is signed and dated 1775. As in the finished painting, it shows a bearded conjuror pointing his wand towards a fire. It is kindled by an assortment of old-master prints from which a framed oil painting emerges. Leaning across his knee, arms folded, is a young smiling girl. In the background, at the extreme top left, a group of naked figures cavort before St Paul's Cathedral, waving palettes and paintbrushes before them. The conjuror is intended to represent Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder President of the Royal Academy. The young girl is meant to be Angelica Kauffman, another founder member of the Academy, and allegedly a former lover of Reynolds. However, it was not the representation of Kauffman leaning across the conjuror's knee which apparently offended her, so much as the inclusion of a naked woman in black stockings among the group of artists (which has since been painted over in the finished picture). The latter was an allusion to Kauffman's role in a current project by Reynolds and various Academicians to decorate St Paul's Cathedral with religious paintings.
From the 1750s Reynolds had incorporated motifs and attitudes from the old masters into his portraits, on the grounds that such 'imitation' elevated his own works to the level of history painting. Hone alluded to Reynolds's practice in the present picture through the depiction of a number of old-master prints that had formed the basis of his own paintings. They include, just below the group of naked figures, an engraving after the Slumbering Silenus Tied up with Tendrils by Francesco Romanelli (1610-62), which Reynolds had used as a source for his group portrait, Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (Tate N00079) of 1774. Similarly, at the bottom left, just above the fire, Hone included a detail from Diana's Nymphs Disarming Cupids by Francesco Albani (1578-1660), upon which Reynolds had modelled his portrait of the Duchess of Manchester and her son, Viscount Manderville of 1769 (The National Trust, Wimpole Hall). Directly below the conjuror's outstretched hand is a small print after the figure of Aminadab by Michelangelo (1475-1564), which Reynolds had used for the principal figure in his history painting, Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon of 1773 (The National Trust, Knole). Reynolds's studio model for Ugolino was an old beggar named George White (see the short text for Tate N00106), whom Hone also used as the model for his own conjuror.
In May 1775, following its rejection by the Royal Academy and an exchange of letters between the relevant parties (see Butlin, pp.2-3), Hone exhibited the finished version of The Conjuror at a one-man exhibition in St Martin's Lane. By this time he had painted out the naked figures in the top left-hand corner of the picture and replaced them with a group of clothed male figures seated around a table. After Hone's death the whereabouts of the finished picture remained unknown, until it appeared at auction in 1944. The National Gallery of Ireland subsequently acquired it in 1967. Shortly before this, in September 1966, the present oil sketch was located in Brazil, evidently having passed to one of Hone's descendants who had emigrated there. The Tate Gallery acquired the sketch the following year, together with a rare copy of the catalogue of Hone's 1775 exhibition.
Martin Butlin, 'An eighteenth-century art-scandal: Nathaniel Hone's "The Conjuror"', Connoisseur, vol. 174, May 1970, pp.1-9
John Newman, 'Reynolds and Hone. "The Conjuror" Unmasked, in Nicholas Penny (ed.) Reynolds, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1986, pp.344-54