View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Godfrey Kneller 1646–1723
Red, black and white chalk on grey paper
327 x 241 mm
Presented by Henry Reitlinger through The Art Fund 1922
…; Captain Henry Reitlinger, by whom bequeathed through the National Art Collections Fund.
J. Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, Oxford 1983, no.51, p.169.
In proportion to his enormous studio output relatively few drawings by Kneller survive which, in the past, gave rise to the argument that the rapidity of Kneller’s technique precluded preliminary sketching. Art historian J. Douglas Stewart argues, however, that there is enough evidence to challenge this assumption.1 Most of Kneller’s surviving drawings are in fact working drawings connected to his production of painted portraits. A particular type of drawing to survive are life-size portrait heads, of which this is an example. Stewart argues that Kneller seems to have made extensive use of such drawings, taken at a client’s first sitting, which enabled him to transfer the image to canvas, either by eye or by tracing. In 1720 Alexander Pope refers to this practice, in a letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Kneller would come to her house, he said, ‘to draw your face in crayons ... from whence he will transfer it to canvas, so that you need not go sitt at his house’.2 In actual fact, most clients sat to Kneller at his studio, most likely on several occasions. In cases where both drawing and painted portrait survive, sufficient differences between them suggest that the drawing was an aid in achieving a likeness, a preliminary stage in the portrait process, and that Kneller made alterations to the painted image at further sittings.3
The identity of this sitter has been lost, and the painted portrait presumably for which it was taken is not known. Its assured simplicity suggests that it is a late work, c.1715–20. Kneller’s drawing, in black and red chalks, appears rapid and economical, with only brief highlights in white on the forehead, nose and cheekbone. There is no evidence of pin holes, scoring or indentation to indicate a method of transfer other than by eye or tracing. Among the sketchbooks and other material descended from Edward Byng, Kneller’s assistant, assumed to be the ‘residue of Kneller’s studio’, are a number of life-size tracings of heads and other details. In red chalk, on varnished or oiled paper, rather than tracings made from drawings they appear instead to be tracings made directly from finished oil portraits, done for the purposes of repetition.4