attributed to Gawen Hamilton

An Elegant Company Playing Cards


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Not on display

Attributed to Gawen Hamilton c.1698–1737
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 692 × 577 mm
Purchased 1967

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This is thought to be the work of Gawen Hamilton who specialised in conversation pieces: small-scale paintings depicting family or friends, usually in informal surroundings. Here a group of gentlefolk enjoy a game of cards. Their status as patrons of the arts is suggested by the presence of an artist, his assistant carrying a folder of sketches, and by an allegory of 'Painting and Sculpture' hanging on the wall. In the left corner turned from the group, a small black page fetches a glass of wine from a wine cooler. In many conversation pieces black servants appear as silent shadowy figures, alienated from the life of the household, often depicted like pets or other possessions.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T00943 An Elegant Company Playing Cards c. 1725 
Oil on canvas, painted surface 680×565 (26 3/4×22 1/4) on stretcher 692×577 (27 1/4×22 3/4) 
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1967 
PROVENANCE The following two provenances could refer to no. 15, or to one of its versions: 
1) ...; according to The Gentleman's Magazine bt at the sale of ‘the late Mr. Hammond of Colchester’ (as a family piece by Hogarth), and in the collection of the Revd Charles Onley at Stisted Hall, Essex, by 1794; by descent to Onley Savill-Onley Esq., on whose death sold Christie's 16 June 1894 (56 as Hogarth) bt Colnaghi; ... 2) ...; John Andrews Dec'd., Christie's 3 March 1832 (84 as ‘Hogarth: the Family of James Thornhill playing at Cards, with a portrait of the painter in the Background’) bt Donovan; ... 
What is certainly no. 15: anon. sale Sotheby's 25 June 1941 (106) bt W. Sabin; ...; anon. sale Christie's 23 November 1951 (61 as Hogarth) bt Spink for John Tillotson, offered by him anonymously through the Hazlitt Gallery at Christie's 18 February 1955 (17) bt in (‘Strong’); sold Sotheby's 8 November 1967 (39) bt Butlin for the Tate Gallery 
LITERATURE Gentleman's Magazine, LXIV, Pt.II, 1794, pp.903–4; Nichols & Steevens 1817, p.178; Nichols 1833, pp. 374–5; Dobson 1898, pp.306, 314; Dobson 1907, p.221; R. Edwards, Early Conversation Pieces, 1954, pp.65–6, fig.93 (for Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, version) 
Two ladies and two gentlemen are shown playing cards at a table, while a butler and a boy serve wine from a cooler on the left. In the background a painter, equipped with palette and followed by an assistant carrying what must be a folder of sketches, appears to be passing through the room, gesturing either towards a doorway or the gentleman on the right. The lady on the right receives the solicitous attentions of both the gentleman at her side and a fawning spaniel which is jumping up at her knee, while a black cat bristles at the dog. 
Since its first appearance in the late eighteenth century, the composition, of which three versions are known, has been associated with Hogarth and the Thornhill family. Stylistically, however, it seems to be much closer to the conversation pieces of Gawen Hamilton, and in 1954 Edwards detected a likeness between the artist in this composition (fig.6, Walker Art Gallery version) and Hamilton's self-portrait in ‘A Conversation of Virtuosis’ of 1735 (National Portrait Gallery, see Kerslake 1977, I, p.340, II, fig.951), though this remains arguable. 
The Tate Gallery version, which was possibly never finished, was extensively overpainted and crudely retouched, perhaps already in the eighteenth century. Restoration in 1985–6 revealed the thinness of the original paint and recovered the wine steward on the left, who had been painted out by an owner in the 1950s. Underneath the overpainting are the remnants of a painting of some quality, best preserved in the sensitive drawing of the boy's head. The 1794 description of this composition in The Gentleman's Magazine, which may refer to this or another version, states that the area behind the boy ‘was not sufficiently finished to be made out’, and describes the earliest known owner of the painting as ‘the late Mr Hammond of Colchester, an ingenious coach and house painter, who, it is said, worked some time under Mr Hogarth’. No one of that name is known to have been associated with Hogarth, nor has it been possible to trace anyone answering this description in the annals of Colchester (checked with the kind assistance of Mr John Bensusan-Butt), although a ‘Hammon [sic], Painter’, of Colchester, did exhibit a stained drawing at the SA in 1774 (113). 
The painting above the chimney-piece is the same in all three versions, and represents an allegory of Painting and Sculpture. What could be its original (it agrees in size and colours) was last sold at Christie's 19 June 1987 (lot 50, 762×635 (30×25), as by ‘P.B.’, fig.7). In it the winged figure of Time or Truth, accompanied by two putti representing Learning and Ignorance (equipped respectively with laurel wreath and ass's ears), lifts the curtain over the Muses, who carry their respective symbols of a mallet and a painter's palette. On the rock beside them is a mask attached to a scroll inscribed with the word ‘IMITATIO’. The painting is signed with a monogram ‘JB’, the first letter being rather faint. So far it has not been possible to establish with any certainty its authorship or provenance (nothing similar appears, for instance, in the sale of Thornhill's pictures in 1734). 
Of the two other versions, the best (judging from an old photograph in the Witt Library) was in the O. Bondy collection, Vienna, 1929 (as ‘Hogarth: A Card-table with Peg Woffington’), and subsequently on the New York art market. The version differs from the other two chiefly through the absence of the dog (though overpainting cannot be ruled out), which is also absent from the very detailed 1794 description of the version then at Stisted Hall. 
The version belonging to the Walker Art Gallery has an unbroken provenance going back to 1844, when F. Croix of Pall Mall sold it as ‘The Thornhill Family’ by Hogarth, claiming a tenuous Thornhill provenance for it (see typescript catalogue entry, Walker Art Gallery). Croix maintains that Sir James's natural son John Thornhill left it with a pawnbroker, whose grandson gave it to Croix's brother. The painting is, however, clearly not by Hogarth, but a contemporary copy of probably the Tate Gallery version, to which (even in its damaged state) it is visibly inferior in drawing, and in its grasp of volume, light and shade. 
Latest research suggests that the artist in the painting could be Dietrich Ernst André (Theodore Andreae), born of a good family in Mitau, Courland, 1680, and died in Paris c. 1734. He worked in Brunswick 1717–19, and then came via Holland to England where he stayed 1722–24. His main work was assisting Thornhill with the decorations of the Great Hall at Greenwich, where he worked on the large and ambitious grisaille scenes glorifying the Protestant Succession on three walls of the Upper Hall. The allegorical picture in the background of T00943 would then be a fitting representation of his speciality of grisaille-painting (i.e. imitation sculpture). The ‘JB’ monogram on the original might be that of André's teacher, the Dutch decorative painter Justus van Bentum, with whom he worked and travelled for twelve years. Bentum died in Leiden in 1727, but very little is known about him or his work. However, pupil and teacher might be expected to share similarities of style, and certainly the ‘Allegory of Sculpture and Painting’ is very close to André's known work (Croft-Murray 1962, p.263; J. Harris, ‘Dietrich Ernst André: his work in England’, Connoisseur, CLVIII, 1965, pp.253–6). 
Vertue writes that, while in England, André married ‘a folish extravagant woman which he left here and returned to Germany again’, presumably in 1724. It would therefore not seem too far-fetched to see in this composition a wedding picture, with the painter's bride seated in the centre in front of him, and his master's emblematic painting (a wedding present?) above them. This could explain the existence of several versions for presentation to family and friends. 
If this were the case, then the couple on the right could indeed be Sir James and Lady Thornhill, his closest associates in England. The likenesses, particularly those in the better-preserved Liverpool version, are not incompatible with Richardson's portrait drawing of Thornhill of 1733 in the British Museum and the anonymous portrait (sometimes unconvincingly ascribed to Hogarth) of Lady Thornhill at Nostell Priory. Thornhill evidently thought well of André and had a number of works by him (including a portrait of Thornhill) in his collection. 
It is difficult to make any guess as to the gentleman on the left, unless it be the bride's father, or André's chief patron in England, Richard Arundell, Surveyor-General of his Majesty's Office of Works, and as such closely associated with the Greenwich project. 
André's appearance is well-documented by a very confident self-portrait at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Brunwick, Germany, and two others in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, one of which, showing the head from the same angle as here, presents a marked likeness to the sitter in T00943. André painted portraits as well as miniatures, and his hand in at least one of the three versions of this picture cannot be ruled out, although comparative material is lacking. 
Published in: 
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988 

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