Thomas Gainsborough

Sir Benjamin Truman


Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2378 × 1514 mm
frame: 2645 × 1785 × 125 mm
Purchased with assistance from subscribers 1978

Display caption

Benjamin Truman (1700-1780) was a wealthy businessman and the director of the Truman brewery in London. The brewery grew under his management and later became the biggest in the world. Truman commissioned Gainsborough to paint this work to hang in one of his homes. Gainsborough was one of the leading portrait painters of the time. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy and shared a rivalry with fellow portraitist Joshua Reynolds, first President of the RA. In 1784 Gainsborough withdrew his paintings from the Royal Academy, following an argument about the way they were shown.

Gallery label, July 2019

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Catalogue entry

T02261 SIR BENJAMIN TRUMAN c. 1770–4

Oil on canvas, 93 5/8 × 59 9/16 (237.8 × 151.3)

Purchased (Grant-in-Aid), with the aid of contributions from Hugh Leggatt through the National Art-Collections Fund; from several directors of Truman's Brewery led by Geoffrey Dent; from Sir Emmanuel Kaye CBE on behalf of Lansing Bagnall Ltd.; from the Viscount Mackintosh Charitable Trust; and from other members of the public 1978

Prov: Painted for the sitter and tied by him in his will to remain at the premises of Truman's brewery at Spitalfields for as long as any descendant of his was connected with it; by descent to Henry Villebois and bought at his death by Messrs. Truman, Hanbury & Co. in December 1886; acquired with the firm by Maxwell Joseph 1973–4, and sold through Colnaghi's to Paul Mellon 1977; after refusal of export licence bought by the Tate Gallery.
Exh: R.A. 1878 (281), as ‘Sir Daniel Truman’; Grosvenor Gallery 1885 (12); 45 Park Lane 1936 (32, repr. p.45 in album of illustrations); British Painting, Louvre, Paris 1938 (55, repr. in album of illustrations); Tate Gallery 1953 (37, repr. pl. viii); British Portraits, R.A. 1956–7 (328, repr. p. 24 in album of illustrations).
Lit: G.W. Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough RA, 1856, p.105 (for Miss Read's portrait); Sir Walter Armstrong, Gainsborough and his Place in British Art, 1904, p.280 (wrongly catalogued twice); Mary Woodall, Thomas Gainsborough, 1949, p.61, repr. f.p.46; E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, pp.21, 93, no. 674, repr. pl.117, and f.p.16 in col.; Mary Woodall (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, 1961 & 1963, p.85, no.39; Trumans: The Brewers, published privately 1966, p.10ff., repr. p.17; John Hayes, Gainsborough, 1975, p.216, note 79, repr. pl. 76; and in catalogue of Gainsborough exhibition, Paris 1981, p.49, repr.; Jack Lindsay, Thomas Gainsborough, 1981, last para. of Preface and pp.137–8; The Tate Gallery 1978–80, repr. in col. on cover.

The family of Sir Benjamin Truman (1711–80) had been connected with brewing since the seventeenth century; under him the firm became one of the largest commercial enterprises of the period, chiefly through its famed black stout or porter. By 1760 it ranked third among the great London porter firms, and in the following year, on the accession of George III, Truman was knighted in recognition of his extensive investments in the public loans raised to finance the wars of George II. His wealth enabled him to build a fine new residence near the brewery in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and to rent ‘Popes’, a country estate at Hertingfordbury in Hertfordshire. At the height of his success he furnished these residences with full length portraits of himself and his family by Gainsborough and later Romney (a fine three-quarter length of Sir Benjamin, seated and about ten years older, by Romney was on the U.S. art market in 1968; a photograph of this picture is in the National Portrait Gallery). Truman seems to have banked with Child's whose mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth-century ledgers have been destroyed, so that it is not possible to establish the exact dates of the commissions, but judging from the age of the sitter and the style of the painting this portrait must have been painted either during Gainsborough's last years in Bath, or immediately on his settling in London in 1774. There appears to have been no portrait of Truman's wife Frances, who died in 1766 (as did his only son), but by September 1777 he had commissioned the artist to paint a full-length of his grand-daughter Frances Read, later Mrs Villebois (now in the collection of Viscount Cowdray; Waterhouse, 1958, repr. pl. 164). Gainsborough refers to Miss Read's sittings in a letter of 12 September 1777 to his sister Mrs Gibbon, and in a letter dated 22 September 1777 (partly quoted in Lindsay, 1981, p.137) he writes that her grandfather had paid him fifty pounds as the half price of the portrait, which gives us some indication of what the portrait of Sir Benjamin himself had probably also cost. Later Gainsborough was to paint Truman's other grand-daughter Henrietta, Mrs Mears (Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, Calif., repr. in the Museum's Handbook, 1970, no.17; also C.H. Collins Baker, Catalogue of Pictures in the Huntington Collection, 1936, p.49, pl.XIII) and a double portrait of his Villebois great-grandsons, Henry and John (private collection; at the time of writing on loan to Leicester Art Gallery, repr. Waterhouse, 1958, pl.222). Stylistically, however, these last two belong to the early 1780s, and may have been commissioned after Sir Benjamin's death. A strong dynastic sense made him want to keep the business in the family, and his descendants were not to go without firm advice on this matter, written in the Rest Book of 1775 (quoted in Trumans: The Brewers, 1966, p.16): ‘...there can be no other way of raising a great Fortune than by carrying on an Extensive trade. I must tell you Young Man, this is not to be obtained without Spirrit and great Application’. He clearly saw his life-style, which included the family portraits, and the trade on which his wealth was based as an integrated whole, for his will, dated 7 May 1779, directed that his Spitalfields house be maintained ‘thoroughly clean’ until either of his great-grandsons whom he had designated as his heirs attained the age of twentyone, and ‘that all my paintings at Popes shall be removed from thence to my Dwelling house in Spitalfields and there remain so long as any of my family have a connection or concern in the Trade now carrying on there by me’. His descendants, however, remained sleeping partners, and the drawing room in the Spitalfields house became the firm's board room, with the paintings in situ. There Sir Benjamin's portrait exerted a noticeable influence on his successors, so that at least two of them, Sampson Hanbury and Arthur Pryor, who raised the firm to new heights of success in the nineteenth century, had themselves painted in almost identical or related poses and settings (repr. in Truman's: The Brewers, 1966).

After the death of Henry Villebois in 1886, his son, also Henry, reclaimed his rights of ownership to the Gainsborough portraits, and they were sold out of the family, with the firm securing the retention of the portrait of Sir Benjamin through purchase (the compiler is grateful to Miss J. Coburn, Head Archivist of the Greater London Record Office, for supplying details from the Truman archives about the picture's history during the 19th century, and to Messrs Truman Ltd. for permission to quote them).

Although Gainsborough's contemporaries considered his remarkably fluent, and painterly technique particularly suitable for painting sensitive portraits of women, this portrait, which is in pristine condition, displays to the full his ability to convey by the same means a forceful and virile personality, subtly enhancing it by the use of sober but warm colours, and by placing the figure in an open setting which underlines the sitter's gravity and self-reliant isolation.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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