Ozias Humphry 1742–1810
Baron Nagell’s Running Footman
Pastel on paper
725 x 610 mm
Purchased from Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, London with assistance from Tate Members and the Sir Robert Horton Bequest 2013
The artist, London; by descent to his illegitimate son William Upcott (1779–1845), London; his sale, Evans, London, 25 June 1846, lot 448 (as ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Black Servant, in Crayons, framed, plate glass’), where bought by Thomas Rodd (1796–1849), London … Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, 1st Baronet (1841–1911), London; his sale, Christie’s, London, 9 July 1909, lot 88 (as ‘African Prince’), where bought by Gooden and Fox, London; private collection, Dorset; by descent; sold by Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, London to Tate in 2013.
This three-quarter length portrait in pastel shows the running footman of Baron Anne Willem Carel van Nagell van Ampsen (1756–1851), Dutch Ambassador to London from 1788 to 1795. He wears a bright blue jerkin with a red collar and silver trimmings, red sleeves, a large, frilly white jabot and an elaborate headpiece apparently made up of red and white cloth bands around a silver metal helmet, arranged to resemble a turban and topped with large feathers dyed with broad red and blue stripes. The figure is posed before a low-set, open landscape, with blue hills in the distance and trees to the left. A running footman could be expected to serve as a messenger and to accompany his employer’s coach, as his ‘assistance was often wanted to support the coach on each side, to prevent it from being overturned’.1 His role was, then, emphatically public, announcing the presence of his employer to the world. Baron Nagell was known for his especially flamboyantly dressed servants and the livery worn by this figure reflects the red, white and blue of the Dutch flag. This work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1795, just weeks after the Dutch court was driven into exile in England by the French invasion of the Netherlands and the declaration of a new republic. Better known as a miniaturist, Humphry had turned to pastel due to failing eyesight on his return from India in 1788. This portrait is typical of Humphry’s output in the years after he was appointed ‘Portrait Painter in Crayons to his Majesty’ in 1792, demonstrating his characteristic and unusual use of unblended strokes of pastel on the sitter’s face. As a strikingly conceived work displayed in the leading public exhibition, and touching so directly on current affairs, Humphry must have hoped that this portrait would help further enhance his reputation in the art.
By the date of this portrait there are believed to have been 10,000–15,000 people of African and African-Caribbean descent working in London, many in domestic service. Black servants were a significant feature of eighteenth-century portraiture, and were often shown in striking livery and wearing turbans to evoke a sense of their ‘exotic’ character and associations with foreign luxury. They appear most frequently in an attending role in portraits of white sitters, occupying the corners of compositions or emerging from the background.2 This portrait is unusual in that it focuses so intently on the features of an unaccompanied, individual servant, rendered life-scale. It sits within a tradition of strongly characterised portraits of especially favoured or long-serving servants, generally commissioned by their employers.3 Whether the resulting effect is to convey a sense of individual autonomy or whether the portrait fits a pattern of stereotypical images is a matter of interpretation. As a portrait likeness of a black sitter dating from the late eighteenth century this pastel is exceptionally rare. There are only a handful of comparable images from the period, which would include Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho 1768 (National Gallery of Canada), the disputed portrait that may be of the author Olaudah Equiano (Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter), and Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of a young black man, identified as Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s manservant (Menil Foundation Collection, Houston) of which the Tate has two studio copies (Tate N05843 and Tate T01892).
Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox – the gallery from which Tate purchased the painting in 2013 – initially identified the work as by John Russell, apparently on purely stylistic grounds. The work has now been firmly re-attributed to Humphry, a contemporary of Russell’s and one of his main rivals. This attribution had previously been published by the art historian Neil Jeffares in his Dictionary of British Pastellists before 1800 (2006), and is corroborated by the identification of the work in a catalogue of Sir Cuthbert Quilter’s London collection (undated, but presumably around 1909), in which this work is listed as by Humphry and illustrated as ‘An African Prince’, executed ‘at the request of the English Government’.4 It was discussed and illustrated as such in a Connoisseur article in 1909 and sold by Quilter at Christie’s that same year. Comparison with similar pastel portraits made by Humphry in the mid-1790s confirms this attribution. In particular, the pastel technique of Francis Haward 1794 (National Portrait Gallery, London) is very close to this work, not least in the characteristic use of unblended strokes of pastel on the sitter’s face, giving a peculiarly ‘liney’ appearance, in notable contrast to the highly blended rendition of the clothing and slightly awkward anatomy apparent in both works.
Although the modern literature has referred to the work as a portrait of an ‘African Prince’, consultation with leading historical dress expert Aileen Ribeiro suggests that, belying Quilter’s identification, there is nothing specifically ‘African’ about the sitter’s costume and that he is in fact wearing a servant’s uniform, specifically that of a running footman, who were noted for their ‘exotic’ feathered headdresses; caps with silver braid and a turban-like band of white silk around them (further references in the Quilter catalogue are also known to be erroneous suggesting that the identity of the sitter was lost and simply invented).5 Ribeiro’s supposition is corroborated by the manuscript catalogue of the works that remained in Humphry’s hands towards the end of his life, drawn up by his illegitimate son William Upcott around 1805, which includes ‘Crayon Pictures: no.4 The Black Running Footman of the Baron Nagel. ¾ length. Framed and glazed’.6 Further strengthening the connection between the exhibited work and this picture is the tricolour nature of the sitter’s apparel. Corresponding with Baron Nagell’s role as Dutch Ambassador the colouration may reflect the red, white and blue of the Dutch flag. Two drawings of servants at the court of the Stadholder William V, by Isaac Lodewijk La Fargue van Nieuwland, c.1766, now at the Rijksmusuem, show similar costumes.7 Furthermore, Baron Nagell was known for his flamboyantly dressed servants. A contemporary reference to his first court appearance in London in March 1788 noted that ‘he makes a splendid appearance with his footmen in scarlet and silver and a gay page or Running footman was vastly well Received’.8 Future research into Nagell’s considerable Dutch correspondence and other contemporary sources may reveal the name and full identity of the footman pictured by Humphry. It appears that this work formed part of a series of pastel portraits by Humphry of the Dutch court in exile. In 1796 Baron Nagell, a significant art collector himself, was instrumental in introducing Humphry to the Prince and Princess of Orange, at the artist’s request. Humphry subsequently produced two pastels of the couple, but after lengthy wrangling over the commission and payment for it, they were returned to the artist and are now lost, although the Prince’s portrait is recorded by an engraving.9
This work was not particularly well-received when it was first exhibited in 1795. Critics complained that the annual Academy exhibition that year was, like that of previous years, too heavily dominated by ‘portraits of insignificant individuals, about whom the world knew little, and cared less’.10 The single published comment directed at this work in particular opined that it was ‘a very feeble production’.11 It appears that the work was not commissioned or sold, as it passed from the artist to Upcott, with whom it remained until his death in 1845. It was presumably on show at what a contemporary recalled as ‘his confined rooms in his antiquated residence at Islington’ where ‘every inch of wall was covered with paintings, drawings, and prints, most of them by Gainsborough or Ozias Humphrey [sic]’.12 It appeared in the large sale in London in 1846 of Humphry’s works belonging to Upcott, now identified as ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Black Servant, in Crayons, framed, plate glass’. It was bought for £2.10 by the London bookseller Thomas Rodd (1796–1849) who purchased several other works of art and manuscripts at the same sale.13 It may have passed to his sons, Thomas Rodd (1796–1849) and Horatio Rodd (active 1798–1858). The latter was a picture dealer and print seller in London. The work was not included in the sales of Horatio Rodd’s art collection in 1849 and 1854.14 It is next recorded in the possession of the prominent art collector and Liberal politician Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, 1st Baronet (1841–1911) by 1909.15 It was included in the sale of his London collection, previously housed at his home and gallery at South Audley Street, at Christie’s, London in 1909, when it was bought by Gooden and Fox for thirty-four guineas.16 It was subsequently sold by Gooden and Fox to a private collection in Dorset where it remained by descent.