Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


28 Study of an Unknown Man c.1751-7

Pastel and red and white chalk on prepared laid paper 45.6 x 28 (15 3/8 x 10 3/4)


Previously thought to be a seventeenth-century portrait sketch, this drawing is now attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby (see no.29). This is on the strength of its similarity to a group of studio drawings believed to be by Wright now in Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and the fact that recent analysis of the paper has shown that it dates from the period c.1747-57, making the earlier identification impossible (Bower 1997).

The collection of Wright drawings at Derby includes studio works (some autograph, some only attributed to Wright) which cover the period from 1751, when he was a pupil in the portrait painter Thomas Hudson's studio, to 1769 by which time he had established an independent reputation (Leger 1995, pp.56-9). This drawing is extraordinarily similar, both in handling and subject-matter, to one of these drawings in particular - a portrait sketch c.1751 attributed to Wright, tentatively identified as either James, Duke of York, or Prince Rupert, and thought to be a copy of a mezzotint after a painting by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680). Although the identity of the sitter remains conjectural and the exact source for the sketch - whether a mezzotint or an actual painting - unknown, both drawings are clearly related to each other. They depict the same sitter and follow one another in such close detail, even down to individual lines and diagonal hatchings, that it is possible that the one shown here, executed in red chalk, is in fact a version of the other, in black chalk, both done as an exercise in the use of slightly different media.

Wright studied under Hudson (1701-1779) from 1751 to 1753 and again from 1756 to 1757 (Nicolson 1968, vol.1, p.2, n.2). At this period Hudson's London studio was large and flourishing, where Wright would have obtained a solid and traditional art education. To judge from the studio drawings which date from this period this involved making red chalk studies after the Antique, detailed drapery studies, general sketches of compositions and poses, as well as drawings after old master paintings or prints such as this one (Leger 1995, p.56). Technically it is very similar to a portrait sketch he made of Hudson himself (Derby Museum and Art Gallery), but while the latter is obviously a contemporary image, the more antiquarian style adopted here (together with the sitter's Lelyesque air) serves to underline the drawing's seventeenth-century derivation.

Copying prints was a well-established teaching exercise. Although past and current London drawing academies tended to stress the life class, other academies (such as those established in Edinburgh in 1729 and 1760) placed importance on drawing after paintings, engravings and drawing manuals (Bignamini 1991, pp.8-9). According to Vertue, it was self-teaching through this method that brought Arthur Pond (1701-1758) recognition: 'by drawing and studying after painting the heads of Vandyke &c. ... and ... by Collections of drawings prints books ...', he says, Pond was now 'cryd up to be the great undertaker. of gravings paintings &c &c'. As Hudson's pupil Wright presumably would have had at his disposal for study Hudson's own large and impressive collection of paintings, drawings and prints. Hudson was one in a line of great artist-collectors such as Van Dyck, Lely and Kneller and, like theirs, his collection was as much for instruction and edification as it was for acquisition of status as a virtuoso. Sales of his collection after his death show that he possessed over eight hundred drawings and prints and over eighty paintings and pieces of sculpture, a great many of which he had bought in the 1747 sales of the collection of his former master and father-in-law, the painter Jonathan Richardson (c.1665-1745). Only a small proportion of the items can be identified today, but it is known that among them were works by Rubens and other old masters, works by his English contemporaries and near contemporaries, as well as paintings and drawings by Van Dyck and Lely (Vertue, vol.3, pp.134-5; Miles and Simon 1979). From Richardson he purchased Lely's portrait of Sir William Swan, and he also owned Lely sketches now in the British Museum (for example, Studies of Arms and Hands - see Stainton and White 1987, pp.126-9). Undoubtedly he would have also owned several mezzotints after Lely's portraits.

Tabitha Barber

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.92 no.28, reproduced in colour p.93