View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Jonathan Richardson 1667–1745
Pencil on vellum or parchment
158 x 133 mm
Inscribed in pencil, not in Richardson’s hand, ‘Algarotti Aug 1726’; on the reverse, in ink: ‘Sign. Algarotti’, and in pencil ‘21 Aug. 1726’.
Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
… ; Charles Rogers (Lugt 625); Jonathan Richardson Junior (Lugt 2170); … ; Charles Fairfax Murray collection; acquired A.P. Oppé, 21 January 1921, and by descent in the family until bought by Tate, 1996.
Royal Academy, London, 1958, no.119.
The Venetian-born Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764) was a poet, scholar and cultural theorist and, certainly among the intellectual elite, somewhat of an international celebrity. Ambitious and charming, and considered devastatingly good-looking, he arrived in London from France, where he had visited Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet in March 1736. The chief purpose of his visit was the completion of his Newtonianismo per le dame, an Italian popularisation of Isaac Newton’s Optics, which was to be published in Milan in 1737. His earlier meeting in Rome with Martin Folkes, the Vice-President of the Royal Society, facilitated many introductions into London’s intellectual society, as did his friendship with Lord Hervey, to whom he had been recommended by Voltaire.1 During his six-month stay Algarotti is recorded visiting Alexander Pope in Twickenham; he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, one of the first three ‘Foreigners of Eminent Note and Learning’ to be so; and Hervey and the high-profile figure of enlightened circles, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, became rivals for his affection.2
The precise circumstances behind Algarotti’s sitting to Richardson are not known but, given Richardson’s friendship with several leading members of the Royal Society, his close intimacy with Pope and his acquaintance with Lady Wortley Montagu, that the two should meet is unsurprising. Algarotti also took a keen interest in painting and art theory (in the 1740s he reorganised the Dresden Gallery of Paintings for his patron, Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, and in 1762 published his practical art manual Saggio sopra la pittura),3 and presumably would have had been interested to meet Richardson, the author of three works on art theory and connoisseurship, and one of the country’s foremost collectors of old master drawings. This finely drawn pencil portrait, on vellum, was not intended as a preliminary study for a painted portrait, however. Richardson was a prolific draughtsman and, principally between 1728 to 1740, produced hundreds of portrait drawings, most of them carefully executed in lead on vellum and approximately the same size as this example.4 Although the vast majority of them were self-portraits or studies of his son, Jonathan Junior, Richardson also produced images of close friends and acquaintances which he retained as ‘a sort of pictorial review of the principal actors in his life’.5 The vellum portraits were not usually drawn from life but executed later, based on rough, usually ink, ad vivum sketches, some of which bear the inscription ‘for the vellum’.6 Richardson’s portrait of Algarotti is an unusual example of an instance where both the ink sketch and the more finished product, on vellum, survive. The ink sketch (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), in fact one of two, the other showing Algarotti in profile,7 is inscribed ‘Sig: Algerotti / 19 Aug: 1736’, whereas the vellum sketch is dated 21 August (the pencil inscription ‘1726’ is presumably a mistake). It can therefore be assumed that Richardson sketched Algarotti from life on 19 August and two days later, based on one of the preparatory exercises, produced this carefully rendered, more refined, portrait on vellum. The presence of the latter in Jonathan Junior’s collection, as well as its ink-ruled mount of the type created by Richardson for his old master drawings, suggests that it was kept by Richardson himself as a memento of a visiting intellectual celebrity.