Audio transcript

Brooke Boothby was the son of a Derbyshire landowner, and an amateur poet and philosopher. But his main claim to fame lies in the support he gave to a more important writer: the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Boothby first met Rousseau in England, when he was a young man of about 22 or 3. Nearly ten years later, on his way home from Italy, Boothby passed through Paris, and called to see Rousseau again. His timing couldn't have been better. Rousseau was at that moment anxious to find someone – and preferably an Englishman – to whom he could entrust the manuscript of the first volume of his autobiography; and when Boothby appeared he is supposed to have said to himself:

'Voila, le dépositaire que la Providence m'a choisi'

('Here is the trustee whom Fortune has chosen for me')

Boothby did not fail him, and in 1786, two years after Rousseau's death, he published, at his own expense, Rousseau, Juge de Jean Jacques – 'Rousseau, his own judge'.

Boothby was so proud of his association with Rousseau that, in the same year, he paid Joseph Wright fifty pounds and eight shillings to paint this portrait. If you move in closer to the picture you will see the painter's name and the date in the lower right-hand corner, just to the right of Boothby's feet. The word 'pinxit' after the artist's name is Latin for 'painted it'. But the idea of an aristocratic gentleman lying down in a wood by the muddy banks of a stream must have seemed even odder to most people at the time it was painted than it does now. Why did he choose to be shown like this?

The answer can be found in Boothby's left hand, the book bound in soft vellum. His forefinger points to the lettering on the spine: ROUSSEAU. Rousseau argued that civilisation could be improved by adopting a more 'natural' way of doing things, and Boothby wanted to show himself in harmony with nature. This is why, unusually for a portrait, this canvas is positioned horizontally, in what is known as a 'landscape' format, rather than being upright, in the normal 'portrait' format. Boothby's head is propped up on his right hand, in a pose traditionally used to indicate thought. He looks elegant but, as you look a bit longer, you can see signs of carelessness: his waistcoat and sleeves are unbuttoned. This is intended to suggest his intellectual and poetic personality – that Boothby was a man concerned with higher things than the trivialities of 'correct' styles of dress. Instead he is deep in thought, alone in nature.