Sir Thomas Lawrence

Homer Reciting his Poems

1790

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 940 x 1111 mm
frame: 1130 x 1315 x 90 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1975
Reference
T01974

Display caption

For most of his career, Lawrence featured in the Royal Academy exhibitions as a portrait painter. He became President of the Academy and, like his predecessor Joshua Reynolds, aspired to be a history painter. This early work was exhibited in 1791. It was painted for the connoisseur, Richard Payne Knight, and its subject and style were calculated to suit his classical taste. In a woodland glade, the Greek poet Homer is shown reciting his Iliad to an admiring audience. The nude youth in the foreground was drawn from a famous pugilist (professional boxer) named Jackson.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

T01974 HOMER RECITING HIS POEMS 1790

Inscribed ‘TL 1.790’ b.l.
Oil on Canvas, 37×43 3/4 (94×111)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Coll: Painted for Richard Payne Knight of Downton Castle, Salop; by descent to Maj. William Kincaid-Lennox, from whose collection sold through Thos. Agnew and Son Ltd 1975
Exh: R.A. 1791 (180); The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, R.A. 1951–2 (241)
Lit: D. E. Williams, The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1831, pp.122–3; Lord R. Sutherland Gower, Lawrence, 1900, pp.7, 175; Sir W. Armstrong, Lawrence, 1913, p.156; C. Hussey, The Picturesque, 1927, repr. pl. VIII; K. Garlick, Lawrence, 1954, p.64, repr. pl. 19; K. Garlick, ‘A Catalogue of the paintings... of Sir Thomas Lawrence’ in Walpole Society, XXXIX, 1964, pp.208, 253

Williams, the artist's official biographer, writes that the picture was begun in Lawrence's new lodgings in Jermyn Street in 1788, and that the nude figure in the foreground was painted from John Jackson the pugilist, who was much in demand as a model because his body ‘had a distinct and marked indication of every individual muscle in the manner of the statues and paintings of Michael-Angelo’. The pose does, in fact, echo Vichelangelo's Adam in the Sistine chapel, and the whole painting shows a young artist's somewhat laboured allusions to classical patterns like Raphael's ‘School of Athens’ for the composition, and Michelangelo's Ignudi for individual figures, corroborating Williams' statement that Lawrence ‘was much struck with his subject and painted it with great care and study.’

It was painted for his early patron, the numismatist and authority on ancient art Richard Payne Knight (1750–1824) who probably suggested the subject. Knight was at the time working on his Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet (published 1791) and was soon to turn his attention to the restoration of Homeric texts to their original purity, a labour that was to result in the publication of his Carmina Homerica in two parts, in 1808 and 1820. Lawrence and Knight remained on friendly terms throughout Knight's life and one of the artist's most splendid portraits is the one he painted of Knight a few years later (exh. R.A. 1794, now at Manchester Art Gallery).

When shown at the R.A. in 1791, the ‘Homer’ was not judged an unqualified success. Gower quotes an unnamed contemporary critic as writing that ‘As friends to young artists in general we recommend Mr. Lawrence to be careful in mounting the Historic Pegasus - this picture by no means presages great success in this line, -the figures have all the appearance of painted stones’. Lawrence seems to have taken the criticism to heart and T01974 remains one of his very rare ventures outside the field of portraiture. More justly, perhaps, other critics (again quoted by Gower) thought the painting good in drawing and colour, but ‘deficient in sentiment’. The classical allusions, however, were fully appreciated and The St. James's Chronicle (7 May 1791) gave it the highest accolade possible by describing the execution as ‘equal to Teniers’ and the background as ‘extremely grand, and in the manner of Poussin’. In its fluid brushwork and lusciously glowing colours, this early picture indeed presages much that is best in Lawrence's mature work.

A pencil sketch for ‘Homer Reciting’ (7 1/4×5 1/4 ins.), showing the main figure seated, with the left arm raised, was in the collection of Joseph Fazzano, Providence (repr. in C. R. Grundy, ‘The Drawings of Sir Thomas Lawrence’ in The Connoisseur, XXXI, December 1911, p.229).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978