- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 845 x 683 mm
frame: 978 x 820 x 65 mm
- Purchased 1916
Daniel Stringer 1754–1808
Portrait of the Artist
Oil paint on canvas
845 x 683 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘D. Stringer / Pinx 1776’ bottom right.
... purchased with the Lewis Fund by the National Gallery from Miss M. Agnes Cohen (1864–1940) in 1916; transferred to the Tate 1919.
This self-portrait was painted by Daniel Stringer at the beginning of his career. The painting is prominently inscribed ‘D. Stringer / Pinx 1776’ in the bottom right hand corner, which would indicate that Stringer was twenty-two years old when it was executed. He is shown in contemporary costume, with a plain brown jacket and breeches and an open-necked white shirt. He wears his own hair, unpowdered and long, a style that was coming into vogue in the later 1770s and considered more ‘manly’ and ‘natural’ than the often elaborate powdered wigs which had been the norm among fashionable society. Seated on an awkwardly low stool, in a darkened and empty interior before a blank canvas on an easel, with a swag of deep green drapery to the left, the painting is presented less as a prosaic record of an artist routinely at work in his studio, accompanied by the materials and apparatus of his art, and more as a representation of an ideal type of artist working in intense isolation. The absence of a life model is particularly striking, given that a living model posed before the canvas or studio props serving as the artist’s subject would be a conventional feature of a self-portrait on this format.1 The implication may be that the painter is working primarily from his imagination, rather than from nature, in line with newly forming ideas of creative or ‘original’ genius. A recent precedent of sorts could be found in William Hogarth’s Self Portrait with the Comic Muse c.1757 (National Portrait Gallery, London) where the artist appears in plain everyday clothes in a blank studio space. Unlike the Stinger painting, however, Hogarth’s work shows the artist actively at work at the canvas, on which the outline of the Muse has already been sketched. Nonetheless, the comparison with Hogarth’s painting reinforces the impression that Stringer’s intention was to convey an idea of the artist as being engaged in an intellectual and creative enterprise rather than a practical one. It also helps expose some of the unusual features of Stringer’s self-portrait. The emptiness of his canvas, the strange awkwardness of the painter’s posture brought about by the unusually low stool on which he is seated, and his impassive expression, produce more unsettling effects. The low stool is particularly striking: while numerous portraits of artists feature the artist in a seated position, these inevitably show the sitter in a comfortably upright position. The exceptions, perhaps tellingly, include images showing juvenile or young men drawing or at the canvas. Examples would include Michael Sweert’s Boy Drawing c.1661 (Minneapolis Institute of Art) or, in Stringer’s time, Nathaniel Hone’s comparable Boy Drawing c.1766 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and Joseph Wright of Derby’s Academy by Lamplight c.1768–9 (versions in a private collection and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). Although these images show their young artists on very low stools, they do not present their subjects in the seemingly precarious contortion seen in Stringer’s figure. The dramatic lighting, plain costume, smoothly modelled paint surface and the attention shown to the specificities of his appearance (with the indication, even, of a ‘five o’clock shadow’) together evoke the example of seventeenth-century ‘Caravaggesque’ artists from the Netherlands, including Sweerts. This tenebrous style was particularly associated with Wright, an artist with whom Stringer is often affiliated in the modern literature although, as noted below, the documented links between them are few and tenuous.
Daniel Stringer came from a family of Cheshire artists. His father, Thomas Stringer (1722–1790), was a sporting and landscape painter based at Knutsford and was much employed by the local gentry. Daniel’s older brother Samuel (1750–1784) painted landscapes and was also based in Knutsford. He was employed by Josiah Wedgwood, which may provide a slight connection between Daniel Stringer and Joseph Wright, who also worked for the potter. Daniel studied under the history painter Edward Penny (1714–1791), also originally from Knutsford, but who established himself in London and became the first Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1768, a position he held until his death in 1791. Daniel became one of the earliest students in the Royal Academy Schools, enrolling on 25 October 1771 when he gave his age as ‘17 14th June last’.2 According to an early biographical notice drawn up in around 1827 by the Manchester bookseller William Ford (1771–1832), Stringer’s academic studies lasted less than two years, but were ‘distinguished by their assiduity, resulting in a most astonishing progress’.3 After completing his studies in London he returned to Knutsford (presumably in 1773 or 1774, if Ford is correct). Ford was able to note that he was employed to paint an ambitious decorative scheme for the Royal Exchange in Liverpool, which was ‘greatly admired ... making him generally known as an allegorical and historical painter’, but also that this was later destroyed by fire.4 Ford also referred to portraits and historical and literary subject paintings by the artist then in local collections in the north-west of England, mainly in Manchester. These included a Shakespearean scene, ‘Hotspur and the Fop’ from Henry IV with a ‘Mr Croft’, a frieze-like composition of ‘Vulcan Presenting to Venus the arms which at her request he had caused to be forged for AEneas’ owned by Ford himself, a Hogarthian comic painting of ‘a Methodist preacher holding forth to a numerous audience under a large wide-spreading oak’ (with ‘George Duckworth, Esq’) and ‘two allegorical pictures of the Seasons’ owned by ‘S. Barton, Esq’.5 Ford also knew of ‘many domestic scenes of rural past-times of boys, etc, and banditti scenes in the manner of Salvator Rosa, in which he greatly delighted and excelled’.6 There are numerous such scenes of soldiers, bandits and wild landscapes, often attributed to or associated with John Hamilton Mortimer (1740–1779), the most acclaimed of Salvator Rosa’s many English imitators (see, for instance, Rocky Landscape with Banditti c.1770–80, Tate T00342).
Stringer exhibited six works at the Liverpool Academy in 1784 and a single painting in 1787 but his later career suffered infamously from the effects of his heavy drinking. In conversation with the painter James Northcote (who had entered the Royal Academy Schools on the same day as Stringer), the writer and erstwhile artist William Hazlitt recalled that ‘All his skill and love of art, had ... been sacrificed to his delight in Cheshire ale, and the company of Cheshire squires’.7 Hazlitt had recalled a visit to Stringer during a journey to northern England in about 1801 in a passage in his essay collection Table-Talk (1821), calling him ‘Poor Dan Stringer!’ and lamenting his dissipated life. Hazlitt was at that time unable to establish even whether he was dead or alive. Stringer had in fact died in 1808 and was buried in St John’s Parish Church, Knutsford, where his gravestone referred to him (rather optimistically) as a ‘Professor of Painting’.8 His widow, Ann, survived until 1821.
Portrait of the Artist was purchased by the National Gallery in 1916 for the relatively small sum of £100 from the Lewis Fund from the artist Minnie Agnes Cohen (1864–1940), and transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919. Reporting the acquisition by the National Gallery, C.H. Collins Baker noted approvingly in the Burlington Magazine that, together with the purchase of Henry Walton’s A Girl Plucking a Turkey exhibited 1776 (Tate N02870), which was purchased in 1912, the gallery was thus forming ‘a nucleus of pictures by minor British artists’.9 The same article illustrated and discussed a more broadly-painted version of the same composition then in the collection of Lionel Anderson, Kendal, which had previously been identified as a self-portrait by George Romney but which by 1916 could be identified as a less accomplished copy or derivation of the present picture by an unknown artist.
The earlier history of the painting is unknown. In correspondence with the National Gallery at the time the painting was purchased from her, Minnie Agnes Cohen referred to it as the property of herself and her sisters, and alluded to it as ‘the picture we have loved as long’, which suggests that it had been in the possession of the family for some time.10 Cohen was born in Lancashire, where several other paintings by Stringer are known to have been located during the nineteenth century, so it seems probable that the painting had been bought by one of her ancestors in the area and passed down through the family. It has not, however, been possible to establish more detail than this. Ford had been able to note the existence of two self-portraits by Stringer in Manchester collections, one owned by the bookseller Thomas Kershaw showing the artist ‘holding his right hand to his chin’ and another ‘large and very fine ... painted with a firm and natural turn of colour, representing him as very youthful but with a pleasing aspect, about the age of 18, painted most likely on his return from London’ in the collection of ‘Bannerman’.11 The first must be the small work on panel, with the artist shown head-and-shoulders looking out to the viewer and resting his chin in his right hand, now in a private collection.12 The second could be identified either as the present painting or the self-portrait acquired by Manchester City Art Gallery in 1986, a half-length image showing the artist with his arms crossed and wearing a similar brown jacket and shirt.13 If the picture referred to by Ford did indeed show the artist at the age of 18, this would suggest that it would have been painted in around 1772, thus seemingly ruling out the possibility of it being a description of the present picture, which is signed and dated 1776, while the Manchester picture is dated c.1775 (presumably on the basis of comparison with the Tate canvas). However, as Ford’s record of dates was demonstrably very imprecise (even as concerned the basic life dates of Stringer) this is perhaps not a reason to discount this identification entirely.14 The Bannerman in question may be one of the family of Manchester manufacturers of that name, perhaps Henry Bannerman (died 1823) or his son David Bannerman (died 1829). A painting by Stringer described as ‘His own Portrait. A faithful likeness of an Artist of uncommon talent, who died young’ was sold by James Bremner (perhaps the Manchester industrialist of that name) at the auctioneer Winstanley’s in Manchester on 21 June 1827;15 the size of the picture was documented as ‘2’ 6" h x 2’ w’ (76.2 x 61 cm), which corresponds with the painting now in Manchester City Art Gallery.
A portrait of a young man with similar hair and features, and holding a porte-crayon, dated 1775, in another private collection, has sometimes been identified as a self-portrait of Stringer but is now attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby or Richard Hurleston (active 1763–77).16 A portrait of a much older man, which if a self-portrait by Stringer must have been painted at the very end of his life, was identified as such by art historian Ellis Waterhouse in 1981 but its present whereabouts are unknown.17 Two further portraits, one of a boy dated 1780 and probably showing Thomas Brooke of Mere Hall, Knutsford, and another of the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, have been on the art market in recent years, but no further works by Stringer are currently identified.18
The dramatic lighting and naturalistic treatment of the sitter’s hair and features in this self-portrait have been associated with the influence of Wright of Derby.19 The known portrait of Brooke certainly has strong stylistic resemblances to Wright’s work of a similar date. Both artists moved in the same social circles in the north-west, and Daniel’s brother Samuel Stringer worked for Josiah Wedgwood, as too did Wright, but there are no direct documented connections. When the associated, smaller self-portrait on panel in a private collection was shown to a number of London art dealers in 1987 as a journalistic experiment, the name of John Opie (1761–1807) was proffered as the likely author more than any other: Stringer’s emphatic chiaroscuro and naturalism may reasonably be said to anticipate that younger artist’s characteristic style to some degree (see, pertinently, Opie’s Portrait of the Artist, c.1790, N01826). Stringer himself has not, though, featured large in histories of eighteenth-century British art. Hazlitt’s allusions to Stringer, relayed through numerous later biographical dictionaries and art historical surveys, have kept his memory alive, albeit as an example of wasted talent. A group of works by Daniel Stringer (although none a self–portrait) were borrowed from the collections of a C. Bradbury and the Manchester art dealer Peter Bolognaro as part of an exhibition of local artists in Salford in 1857.20 Works were still known to be in local collections in the later nineteenth century.21 Stringer was, though, undoubtedly an extremely obscure figure by this time, undoubtedly aggravated by his geographical location. The publication of Ford’s notes about the artist in 1881 was welcomed as throwing scarce new light on English regional art of the previous century:
The lives of the English artists who preferred passing their days in our country towns to seeking for fame and fortune in London – and there were some at Chichester, Derby, at Norwich, whose paintings now rank among the pleasures of English art – have been so unduly neglected that we cannot but draw the attention of the future art-biographer to the notice of Daniel Stringer, of Knutsford, which is published in the new number of the Palantine Note-Book.22
Ford’s published notes remain the fullest account of the painter, although like Hazlitt he stressed his sad decline: ‘he became fond of low company, and addicted himself to drinking, which led to the most inveterate and vicious habits’.23 In more recent times his name has been mentioned in local histories, in studies of the emerging provincial art scene of the later eighteenth century and in connection with his father, whose work has appeared more frequently on the art market.24 The self-portrait, meanwhile, remains subject to interpretation. So it was shown in juxtaposition with a video work by the contemporary Austrian artist Heido Zobernig (born 1958) in an exhibition at Tate St Ives in 2008–9, with the suggestion that the ‘video portrait of the artist swaggering across a meadow in a blonde wig to a computer generated theme tune ... connects curiously with Daniel Stringer’s self portrait of 1776’.25 Most recently, the art historian Sarah Monks has utilised the portrait to help introduce a collection of essays themed around the impact of the Royal Academy on British artistic life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. For Monks, the portrait exemplifies the ambitions and anxieties of young artists embarking on their careers in the wake of the foundation of the Royal Academy. In her account, the presence of the blank canvas, ‘its low-slung position upon this too-small easel and behind this tiny stool both infantilizes the artist and makes clear the outsize scale of the task he has set himself’, helping to create an ‘image of simultaneous abandonment, isolation and dumb hope before the multiple expectations which pulled at the modern painter’.26
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