- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 902 x 705 mm
- Presented by Henry Farrer 1849
Gilbert Stuart 1755–1828
Oil paint on canvas
902 x 705 mm
Presented by Henry Farrer 1849
Commissioned from the artist by John Boydell (1720–1804), London, c.1782–3; his nephew, Josiah Boydell (1752–1817), London; passed in 1817 (with the business) to Hurst, Robinson & Co., London; then with the business in 1826 to Moon, Boys & Graves, London; sold to John Newington Hughes (1778?–1848), Maidstone, after 1832; his sale, Christie’s, London, 14 April 1848, lot 104, bought for £73.10 by the picture dealer and restorer Henry Farrer (1798–1866), London; given by Farrer to the National Gallery, London 1849; deposited with the National Portrait Gallery, London 1883; returned to the National Gallery, London by 1923; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1949.
The celebrated engraver William Woollett (1735–85) is shown as if at work on the copperplate of one of his most famous and commercially successful prints, that reproducing Benjamin West’s Death of Wolfe (1771; National Gallery of Canada), first published in 1776. He is shown in a red turban and a banyan (a large robe), the sort of informal, pseudo-oriental dress associated (by virtue of its suggestions of physical and intellectual liberty) with artists and writers in the eighteenth century, 1 and is seated in an upholstered chair at a table on which rests the copperplate, raised towards him on an angled surface covered with a green cloth. The right hand edge of West’s composition, shown as if it was the full-size original painting, is shown in the background to the left. Wollett’s left hand grasps lightly around the near edge of the plate; in his right hand, resting on the plate itself, is an engraving tool (burin). Woollett’s body and face are turned slightly to face the viewer; he looks directly out of the canvas, as if momentarily distracted from his work.
The painting was among the nine by the American painter Gilbert Stuart included in the group exhibition of the Incorporated Society of Artists in London in 1783. This was at a time that the Society’s annual exhibitions were greatly overshadowed by those held by the Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House. Stuart had trained with the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander (1724–72) in his native Rhode Island and in Scotland, and had arrived in London in 1775. He was taken into West’s studio (and home) as a paid assistant and pupil in 1777. Stuart had exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1777 and 1779, but without critical notice. He had shown works much more successfully at the Academy in 1781 and 1782, including in the latter year his famous portrait of The Skater (National Gallery of Art, Washington), which he later claimed was the single picture responsible for his professional break-through. He was to return to exhibiting with the Academy in 1784, so the decision to show at this relatively marginal exhibition space was presumably reflected some temporary disagreement with the institution or was intended to be strategic (allowing Stuart to shine among the generally lesser talents on show at the Society).2 The picture, shown under the published title of ‘Portrait of an Artist’, was, therefore, one of a sequence of works (also including N00229) created by Stuart with the intention of establishing his public reputation. It reviewed very positively as among the highlights of the Incorporated Society’s show in 1783. The St James’s Chronicle (25–27 May 1783) identified the sitter as Wollett and remarked that it was ‘the man himself’ and though ‘a very slight picture … a better resemblance was never painted’. The London Chronicle (29 April– 1 May 1783) concluded, ‘Stuart’s portraits promise a great future increase of merit’. Like other portraits by Stuart from the early and mid-1780s, when he was establishing himself as an independent artist, the painting makes use of a strident and distinctive colour scheme. In this case, the distinctiveness of the portrait lies largely in the emphatic red of the sitter’s voluminous costume, decisively contrasted with the green cuffs of the banyan, and the matching green of the upholstery and of the cloth underneath the copperplate, all conveyed through the assertive manipulation of paint with broad and visible brushwork.
The painting originated as a commission from the London print publisher John Boydell (1720–1804). It was one of a series of fifteen portraits of contemporary painters and engravers commissioned from Gilbert Stuart by Boydell in 1782, and designed to be exhibited together as a gallery of portraits to accompany the display of John Singleton Copley’s Death of Major Peirson (Tate N00733) in Boydell’s newly expanded gallery space upstairs at his premises at 90 Cheapside in London.3 Three oval paintings by Stuart, of Josiah Boydell (the publisher’s nephew and an artist; perhaps the painting at the Holbourne Museum of Art, Bath),4 John Singleton Copley (National Portrait Gallery, London) and the engraver James Heath (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford CT) were designed to be set into the elaborate frame of the Death of Peirson.5 Other pictures on more conventional three-quarter length formats, including the present work, were to hang nearby. Copley’s painting was first shown in its ornate frame at Boydell’s gallery in 1784; the gallery was unveiled in its complete form with the other twelve portraits by Stuart late in 1786. Besides the three oval pictures and the present canvas, the other portraits included images of the engravers Johann Gottlieb Facius (Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum, Seattle), John Hall (transferred from the Tate Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery in 1957), John Browne, William Miller, G.S. Facius, Richard Earlom and William Sharp (current location unknown);6 the marine painter Richard Paton (private collection), the portrait painter Ozias Humphry (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford CT),7 Sir Joshua Reynolds (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Benjamin West (National Portrait Gallery, London) and John Boydell himself (unlocated). Wollett’s portrait seems to be conceived as a partner of sorts to the image of Hall, in its closely mirroring composition, the engraver before another of West’s celebrated paintings of Anglo-American history, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772).8 Throughout the series, Stuart exhibits a greater concern with colouristic effect and tonal balance than with individual expression. In 1804 a writer in the Monthly Magazine complained of the paintings as a group: ‘more uninteresting vapid countenances it is not easy to imagine: neither dignity, elevation, or grace, appear in any of them; and had not the catalogue given their names, they might have passed for a company of cheesemongers and grocers’.9
A writer in The Morning Post (14 November 1786) described the original display:
The inner room is now furnished wholly with modern paintings – around it on the top the portraits of the most eminent English artists, whose works have been purchased, and engraved from by the Alderman, or of engravers, whom he hath at different times employed to engrave for him – They are strong likenesses, and by Stuart.10
A German visitor, Sophie von la Roche, also visited Boydell’s shop around this time and gave a detailed account of the gallery displays, including the ‘portraits of famous English painters, especially engravers’, noting that ‘I liked Woollett best of all’.11 The painting was still on show in Cheapside towards the end of 1788 when the young painter Martin Archer Shee saw them, though he reckoned the series ‘not the best pictures I have seen of Stewart’s [sic]’.12 Stuart’s portraits appear subsequently to have been transferred for display at the home of Boydell’s new venture, The Shakespeare Gallery, in Pall Mall, which had opened in 1789. They were listed in the catalogues of 1790 and 1791 as groups of ‘Portraits of Engravers’ and ‘Portraits of Painters’, with the addition to the latter of self-portraits by William Hogarth (Tate N00112), James Northcote and John Opie and a picture identified as William Hogarth’s portrait of Sir James Thornhill.13 In the Preface to the 1790 catalogue of the Shakespeare Gallery Boydell alluded to ‘several pictures now added not connected with the Shakespeare plan’ which were, however, ‘painted on the same principal, upon which this great Work was originally undertaken - A desire of promoting and Historical School of Painting in England’.14 Stuart’s portrait series, together with the epic canvas by Copley of Peirson’s heroic death during battle (Tate N00733), can then be interpreted as a concerted effort to promote a British School of art.
The portrait series appears to have on show at the Shakespeare Gallery temporarily, and was removed to the Boydell shop and gallery at 90 Cheapside by 1793.15 At least some (if not all) of the Stuart paintings passed with the stock from 90 Cheapside from Boydell to his business successors, Hurst Robinson & Co and then Henry Graves (1806–92) of the print publishers Moon Graves & Boys who took over the business in 1826.16 The portrait of Woollett was exhibited by the firm in a mixed exhibition of historic and contemporary British art at the Suffolk Street Gallery in London in the winter of 1832–33, presumably with a view to selling it: a sceptical contemporary reviewer noted that the show featured among its five hundred exhibits ‘numerous pictures from the studies of Artists, the back parlours of picture dealers, and the shops of printsellers, in the way of trade’ (Observer, 11 November 1832). It passed to the Maidstone banker and collector John Newington Hughes (1778?–1848) at or after this date.17 It featured in the posthumous sale of his collection at Christies in 1848, at which time a newspaper writer urged that as ‘a clever, and above all a characteristic, portrait of an English engraver, whose works are bought at large prices not by English alone but by European collectors’ the picture should be in any projected national gallery of British art.18 The painting was given to the National Gallery in 1849 by the picture dealer and restorer Henry Farrer (1798–1866) on those terms, with the opinion given by the donor that it is a ‘National work . . . of great interest to Englishmen’.19 The painting was being shown at the National Gallery's display of the British collections at Marlborough House in the 1850s, where it received particular notice in an unofficial guide-book:
This is a fine likeness of the great Engraver. Woollett who was opposed to the Royal Academy knew where to find a Painter unconnected with that Society far superior to most of its members. The Artist has accomplished an admirable combination of intelligent expression with plebeian but not unpleasing features; the colouring is rich sunny and harmonious and the whole effect remarkably broad and picturesque, the light playing naturally over the face and across the red silk dress lined with white. A little more firmness in parts, would have well sustained the animation of the countenance and of the general combination.20
The same guide referred to Stuart's portrait of John Hall, also on display, as a ‘companion’ work. The painting of Wollett was being hung in a corresponding position with the portrait of John Hall but both ‘rather out of sight’ when it was included in the new hang of British art at the National Gallery in 1876.21 In 1883 the painting was deposited with the National Portrait Gallery, but was returned to the National Gallery by 1923 when it attracted new critical notices. A writer in an American magazine wrote in that year:
I was walking through the National Gallery, London, last week when, in the great room, I suddenly saw a newcomer upon the walls. It was a sparkling, bold portrait of a man in a red turban, clothed in a gown of lighter red, seated at a sloping table, covered with a green cloth upon which is an engraving plate. The face of this man with the shrewd, brown, kindly eyes, is beautifully drawn and modeled, and the rich, juicy paint of his dress is a delight. So frankly and sportively is the paint handled, that I thought at first it was by Hogarth.22
The presence of Stuart’s portrait in the National Gallery ‘in a place of honor among the Hogarths’ marked, for this writer, ‘the increasing repute of Gilbert Stuart in the art world today’. Another literary reviewer in 1926 could note the picture in the context of artist’s ‘direct business-like approach’ which he identified as characteristically American:
Visitors to the British section of the National Gallery may sometimes have stopped, in the long room with the Gainsborough and Reynolds, before a portrait of a plump gentleman in a red silk robe and Hogarthian headdress by name of William Woollett. Although the portrait is not a masterpiece, the head is drawn very directly and the colour scheme and composition are fresh and unaffected.There is altogether an attractive simplicity and straight-forwardness about the portrait which arouses curiosity concerning the painter, Gilbert Stuart.23
The painting was subsquently transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1949.
West’s painting of The Death of General Wolfe was one of the most acclaimed and influential images of the age. First shown at the Royal Academy in 1771, the painting represented the death on the battlefield of a British general, James Wolfe, at the moment of British victory against the French at the battle of Quebec in Canada in 1759. That battle helped mark a decisive turn in Britain’s fortunes within the Seven Years’ War, the long, world-wide conflict which ultimately saw Britain become the supreme global power. Wollett’s engraving was published in January 1776, co-published by himself with Boydell and another engraver and print publisher, William Wynne Ryland. It was hugely commercially successful, and has been identified as one of the key productions which helped establish an independent British print market in the late eighteenth-century.
West’s composition became, in effect, the template for images of heroic military sacrifice for the coming decades, including Copley’s Death of Peirson (N00733).24 Although Woollett is shown by Stuart as if seated in front of the full-size painting, this had been purchased from the artist by Lord Grosvenor. A further version of the composition had been commissioned by George III, and West produced at least three more full-size versions.25 If paintings were certainly borrowed by engravers of the time to aid the completion of their plates, meaning that Stuart’s painting accords with contemporary practice, it is also recorded that Boydell owned a small version of the composition in oil, now unlocated but apparently ‘painted for the plate’.26 Moreover, Stuart has cropped the original composition, so that West’s figure of a standing grenadier appears much closer to the right-hand edge of the canvas than in the actual painting. Rather than proposing to be an accurate record of an engraver’s practice, the painting offers an idealised representation of this famous printmaker at work on his most esteemed production – a picture which had, moreover, distinctively nationalistic associations.
Stuart’s portrait of Woolett achieved its own celebrity: it was copied and reproduced a number of times. Commenting on the work when it was displayed in 1783, the St James’s Chronicle (25–27 May 1783) noted, ‘If Mr Woollett would oblige the public with a print from it he would find them not ungrateful’. No such print is known to have been started, but an etching of Woollett, in a very similar pose to that used by Stuart (but in reverse) was issued by John Keyse Sherwin in 1784. Stuart’s painting was subsequently reproduced in stipple by Caroline Watson, and published as ‘Mr William Woollett, the Engraver’ by Boydell in September 1785. Watson’s watercolour version of this portrait on vellum (changing the colour of the banyan to green) was presumably prepared to facilitate the production of this print, and is in the British Museum (1868–08–08–3038). Another copy of the portrait in watercolour by Henry Edridge (1769–1821) is in the same collection (1845–08–18–2). A pencil and wash drawing by the sculptor William Behnes (1794–1864) is in the British Library (possibly created as a study towards an historical portrait bust).27 In 1981 the Tate Gallery was approached about a small oil painting on wood, which was stated to be a ‘study’ for the present picture: this is now unlocated.28 At a further remove, according to C.F. Bell it was Stuart’s likeness that was used as the basis of the portrait included in Thomas Banks’ wall-mounted memorial to the engraver erected in the west walks of the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey in 1792.29
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