Illustrated companion

The idea of an aristocratic gentleman lying down in a wood, on the damp and possibly muddy bank of a stream, to do his thinking, would have seemed odd to most people at the time this picture was painted. Why is he not indoors in his well-stocked library in a comfortable armchair? The clue to Sir Brooke Boothby's strange action lies in the book he is holding under his left hand. Boothby's finger is pointing to the name of the author on the spine of the book, and looking closely it can be read: 'Rousseau'. This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-88), the French philosopher whose ideas have had a profound effect on politics, social behaviour, education and art. In the context of this painting it is probably Rousseau's idea that civilisation could be improved by adopting more 'natural' ways of doing things, which is particularly relevant, since Boothby seems deliberately to have adopted a pose that shows him in a harmonious relationship with nature.

Sir Brooke Boothby was an amateur poet and philosopher who took an active interest in the new scientific and technical ideas which were bringing about the industrial revolution in the English Midlands at that time. He had formed a friendship with Rousseau of which he was very proud. In 1776 Boothby visited Rousseau in Paris and Rousseau, fearing prosecution by the authorities, gave him for safekeeping the manuscript of Roussean Juge de Jean-Jacques ('Rousseau judge of himself'), an important defence of himself and his ideas.

Rousseau died two years later, in 1778, and two years after that, in 1780, Boothby had the manuscript published in England. This is the book in the picture and Boothby was clearly so pleased with himself for publishing it that he commissioned the painting: it may be seen as a tribute from an English liberal thinker to the great French revolutionary philosopher.

Boothby's clothes are also interesting. It was poets and artists from about this time who seem to have established the idea that artists and 'intellectuals' should dress in an unconventional and informal way. At first glance, Boothby looks very elegant and tidy but a closer look reveals that by the standards of the time he was carelessly dressed - both his waistcoat and coat sleeves are unbuttoned and this was understood as symbolic of an intellectual and poetic personality who is above everyday trivialities such as 'correct' dress. The wide-brimmed black hat would also have indicated that Boothby had turned away from the civilised world to think deep thoughts alone in nature.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.31