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