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Jonathan Richardson was one of the leading portrait painters of early eighteenth century England, as well as an important art theorist. The diplomat and poet, Matthew Prior (1664-1721), the subject of this drawing, regarded him highly. In 1720 Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote to Prior applying for his assistance in the procurement of a portrait of the 1st Earl of Oxford that he hoped either Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) or Michael Dahl (?1659-1743) would paint. 'Richardson', replied Prior, ' I take to be a better painter than any named in your letter' (cited in Carol Gibson-Wood 2000, p.65).
The basis of Prior's judgement was the portrait Richardson had painted of him in 1718 (Welbeck Abbey), commissioned by Edward Harley, later 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741). Harley, a celebrated patron of the arts and of men of learning, was a close friend of Prior's and at the time, Prior's diplomatic career being in eclipse, was assisting him financially. The same year, 1718, he had helped raise subscriptions for the publication of a collected edition of Prior's poems, Poems on Several Occasions; and the following year he engaged George Vertue (1683-1756), another of his circle, to engrave the Richardson portrait.
There is no evidence that Richardson knew Prior before his commission from Harley. This direct and penetrating drawing, most likely a study from life, was possibly executed at the same time as the oil, but is not a preliminary study for it. The angle of the head is different, the eyes are directly engaged with the viewer and the velvet cap is missing. Prior died in 1721, only three years after sitting to Richardson, yet here he appears older than in the oil. His face is fuller, the flesh less taught and thus his demeanor less commanding. The difference between the two is possibly explained through Richardson's theoretical approach to portrait painting, expressed in the second edition of his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1725). He believed that a middle way should be chosen between flattery and exact likeness - in other words, while truthfulness to appearance and character should be the aim, a sitter's good features could be idealised and irregularities improved in order to enhance their dignity and bearing. While this drawing is direct and honest, the oil presents Prior's improved, public face, more appropriate for a man of intellectual purpose and distinction.
In the second part of his publication Two Discourses (1719), An Argument in behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur, in which Richardson claims to be the first to articulate connoisseurship as a branch of knowledge, he uses the French term connoissance as, he says, recommended to him by Prior. He identifies Prior the famous poet as his friend, his name appearing in extra-large type (Carol Gibson-Wood 2000, p.80). However, the extent of Richardson's friendship with Prior is not known. The little evidence there is suggests an acquaintance based on intellectual exchange rather than close intimacy.
Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 2000
Jonathan Richardson 1667–1745
Portrait of Matthew Prior
Pencil on vellum
760 x 620 mm
Inscribed verso, with the name of the sitter
Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
… ; acquired A.P. Oppé 1924, thence by descent until bought by Tate 1996.
Jonathan Richardson, one of the leading portrait painters of early eighteenth-century England, was regarded in 1731 by the art-world commentator George Vertue as, along with Michael Dahl and Charles Jervas, one of ‘the three formost Old Masters’. Vertue greatly lamented Richardson’s death in 1745: ‘this was the last of the Eminent old painters that had been contemporyes in Reputation – Kneller Dahl. Jarvis & Richardson’, he noted sadly. The diplomat and poet, Matthew Prior (1664–1721), the subject of this drawing, also regarded Richardson highly. In 1720 Jonathan Swift wrote to him, applying for his assistance in the procurement of a portrait of the 1st Earl of Oxford that he hoped either Kneller or Dahl would paint. ‘Richardson’, Prior replied, ‘I take to be a better painter than any named in your letter’.1
The basis of Prior’s judgement was the portrait Richardson had painted of him, commissioned by Lord Harley, later 2nd Earl of Oxford, in 1718 (now Welbeck Abbey). At the time Prior was partially under the patronage of Lord Harley who, along with others, was involved with the publication through subscription of an enlarged collected edition of Prior’s poems, Poems on Several Occasions. In the same year Harley had commissioned other portraits from Richardson and in 1719 had engaged Vertue to engrave the portrait of Prior. These inter-connections with men of learning highlight the intellectual, literary and professional society to which Richardson belonged. His contacts with such figures went beyond mere business transactions. ‘Few men lived less alone than my father’, wrote Jonathan Richardson junior, ‘he kept a great deal of company, and had a very universal acquaintance. Every one was fond of his, as he was a most chearful and engaging companion’.2 Friendships struck with poets, writers and other thinkers encouraged his own literary and poetic endeavours, and discussions with them no doubt influenced and helped to develop the theories expounded in his important art-theoretical publications.
There is no evidence that Richardson knew Prior before his commission from Harley to paint Prior’s portrait. This direct and penetrating drawing was possibly executed at the same time as the oil, but it is not a preliminary study for it. The angle of the head is different, the eyes are directly engaged with the viewer and the velvet cap is missing. Prior died in 1721, only three years after sitting for the oil portrait, yet here he appears older. His face is fuller, the flesh less taught and thus his demeanour less commanding. The difference between the two is possibly explained through Richardson’s theoretical approach to portrait painting, expressed in the second edition of his Essay on the Theory of Painting, published in 1725. He believed that the portrait painter should choose a middle way between flattery and ‘exact likeness’ – in other words, while truthfulness to individual appearance and character should always be the aim, a sitter’s good features could be idealised, regularised or improved in order to enhance their dignity and bearing. While Richardson’s drawing is direct and truthful, his oil present’s Prior’s improved, public face, closer to an earlier description of his as thin and ‘hollow-looked’.3
Richardson was a prolific draughtsman and a great many portrait drawings by him survive, a large body of them actually of himself or his son, but many of friends and eminent people he had known. A large proportion of them were executed in the 1730s when he busied himself with creating small, highly finished lead-on-vellum works, many of which he kept bound in albums ‘as a way of commemorating the people who had played important roles in his life’.4 Many were posthumous images taken from portraits. This can not have been the case with Prior, however, as the drawing differs from the portrait too widely; it is more likely an ad vivum likeness of 1718–21.
The extent of Richardson’s friendship with Prior is not known but the little evidence there is suggests an acquaintanceship based on intellectual exchange rather than close intimacy. In the second part of Two Discourses, An Argument in behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur (1719), in which Richardson claims to be the first to articulate connoisseurship as a branch of knowledge, he in fact uses the French term connoissance as, he says, recommended to him by Prior. He identifies Prior the famous poet as his friend, his name appearing in extra-large type.5 It is said that Richardson wrote to Prior asking for his advice on the title of one of his publications, presumably Two Discourses. Prior apparently replied with the suggestion, ‘The History of Myself and My Son Jonathan, with a Word or two about Raphael and Michael Angelo by the way’.6 This anecdote may not be true, but it certainly mirrors the high amusement Richardson’s friends, such as Alexander Pope, derived from his over-earnest pursuit of his interests and his single-minded promotion of his son’s only modest abilities.