Joseph Highmore

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing


Not on display

Joseph Highmore 1692–1780
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 651 × 759 mm
frame: 825 × 955 × 120 mm
Purchased 1921

Display caption

This is the first in a series of 12 paintings by Joseph Highmore illustrating scenes from Samuel Richardson’s best-selling sentimental novel Pamela: or, Virtue rewarded. The story, first published in 1740–1, centres on the virtuous lady’s maid Pamela Andrews. She repeatedly rebuffs, then reforms and finally marries her aristocratic would be seducer, Mr B. Scene I is set in a comfortable, panelled study of a well-to-do house. Its solid, old-fashioned furniture and a picture of The Good Samaritan over the fireplace underline the traditional values of the heroine.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

N03573 [from] Four Scenes from Samuel Richardson's ‘Pamela’ 1743–4 [N03573-N03576; complete]

Purchased (Florence Fund) by the National Gallery 1920; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1934
PROVENANCE For the complete set: finished by May 1744 and still in the painter's studio in 1750; his sale, Langford's 5 March 1762 (24, with full set of framed prints); ...; Major Dermot McCalmont of Cheveley Park, Newmarket, sold Christie's 26 November 1920 (130 as ‘Illustrations to Clarissa Harlowe’ by Cornelis Troost) bt Peacock for A.H. Buttery; bt from him by the National Gallery and divided between itself, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (II, V, VI, XII) and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (III, IV, VIII, X)
EXHIBITED Complete set: Kenwood 1963 (15–26)
ENGRAVED Line engraving by Antoine Benoist (III, IV, V, VI, IX, XII) and Louis Truchy (I, II, VII, VIII, X, XI), pub. 1 July 1745; reprinted, with only alteration of the year, in 1762. All plates show very minor variations of detail from the original oils.
LITERATURE Complete set: Gentleman's Magazine, L, 1780, p.177; A.L. Barbauld, Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, 1804, IV, pp.255–6,362; C.H. Collins-Baker, ‘Richardson's Illustrations’, Times Literary Supplement, 16 December 1920, p.864; C.H. Collins-Baker, ‘“Pamela” in the National Gallery’, Connoisseur, LX, 1921, pp.39–40; Whitley 1928, I, pp.47–8; T.C. Duncan Eaves, ‘Graphic Illustration of the Novels of Samuel Richardson’, Huntington Library Quarterly, XIV, 1951, p.349; Waterhouse 1953, p.136; 1978, p.182; Ursula Hoff, Catalogue of European Paintings before 1800, National Gallery of Victoria, 1961, pp.69–71; E.K. Waterhouse, Three Decades of British Art, Philadelphia 1965, pp.2–5; Paulson 1971, II, pp.10–15; J.W. Goodison, British School Catalogue of Paintings, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1977, pp.102–5; Lewis 1975, I, pp.170–211, 213–15, 222–3, II, 592, nos.251–63, III, figs. 152, 153, 159, 161, 163; Joseph Burke, English Art 1714–1800, 1976, pp.171–2

These four paintings [N03573-N03576] form part of an original set of twelve (now divided equally between the Tate Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), conceived by Highmore as a pictorial rendering of Richardson's immensely popular novel Pamela: or, Virtue rewarded, the first part of which was published in November 1740. The other subjects (figs.12–19) are, in order of their numbering: II) Mr B. takes liberties with Pamela in the summer house; III) Pamela fainting on discovering Mr B. in the closet; IV) Pamela with Mrs Jervis, disposing of her bundles; V) Pamela setting out from Mr B.'s Bedfordshire house; VI) Pamela shows Mr Williams a hiding place for their letters; VIII) Pamela unexpectedly meets her father; X) Pamela is ill-treated by Lady Davers; XII) Pamela telling nursery tales to her children. They were not intended as illustrations to be bound with the text, but as a self-contained set of large prints for an album or for framing (the oil paintings were offered at Highmore's retirement sale in 1762 with a full set of the engravings ‘fram'd and glaz'd’).

The novel, written in the form of letters, tells the story of the virtuous and well-educated lady's maid Pamela Andrews, whose mistress on her deathbed confides her to the care of her son ‘Mr B.’. Unworthy of his charge, Mr B. attempts various strategems to seduce her, but in the face of Pamela's unshakeable probity, he reforms and marries her instead. The second part deals with Pamela's conquest of Mr B.'s haughty relations, whose contempt for her lowly origins is gradually replaced by admiration and respect for her personal qualities.

Richardson planned that the second edition of the novel should have frontispieces by Hogarth, but for unknown reasons these never materialised. By 1742 the novel had gone through five editions and had been translated into several languages. That year Richardson published the sixth edition (of Part I, the third of Part II) in a de luxe form, with twenty-nine illustrations by Francis Hayman and Hubert Gravelot. Although this edition was not a great commercial success, it may have given Highmore the impetus to produce his own set of illustrations to the novel. On 18 February 1744 The London Daily Post and General Advertiser carried Highmore's earliest known advertisement for a series of ‘twelve prints by the best French engravers, after his own paintings representing the most remarkable adventures of Pamela in which he has endeavoured to comprehend her whole story, as well as to preserve a connection between the several pictures ...’. It also stated that ten of the pictures were completed and could be seen at his house, the Two Lyons, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where subscriptions would be received. The fact that each plate was to have a short explanation of the scene in French as well as English shows that Highmore hoped for good sales abroad. On May 22–24 1744 The London Evening Post repeated the advertisement, stating that now all twelve paintings had been completed (advertisement quoted in full in a letter from W.T. Whitley, 29 November 1929, in Gallery files). The twelve plates were published on 1 July 1745 and delivered to subscribers later that month. All engravings were in reverse to the original paintings, with the exception of plates I and IX, in which it was necessary to preserve the same sense in order not to invert specific actions, i.e. writing and the fitting of the wedding ring.

Although Highmore had produced the set independently of Richardson, the two men met as a result, and a lifelong friendship ensued that ended only with Richardson's death in 1761 (see C.H. Collins-Baker, ‘Joseph Highmore, Samuel Richardson and Lady Bradshaigh’, Huntington Library Quarterly, VII, 1944, p.316). Highmore's treatment of his subject is greatly influenced, both in tone and handling, by the French Rococo gracefulness of Hayman's and Gravelot's illustrations, and his simple, clear and slightly sentimental treatment of the narrative is in complete sympathy with the tenor of the novel itself. He eschews the wealth of comment and significant detail which was characteristic of Hogarth's narrative sets, particularly of ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’, published only two months before ‘Pamela’. Highmore's set may in fact have been one of the reasons why Hogarth abandoned his own project for a series on virtuous domesticity, ‘The Happy Marriage’, with which he had planned to follow ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’. Hogarth would never have achieved the graceful and somewhat shallow Rococo lightness of Highmore's ‘Pamela’ series, in which every scene aims for an uncomplicated intimacy within a narrow space, centred on a single incident drawn straight from the narrative, without any distracting comments. In this way it conveyed something that was dear to Richardson's heart, namely, a sense of well-bred decorum. That the series became popularly associated with precisely this quality, is demonstrated by an anonymous contemporary broadsheet on the cause célèbre of 1750, the trial of the highwayman James Maclean, whose uncommonly gentlemanly manners had made him many friends in respectable society. It shows the prisoner being visited in his cell by ‘the quality’, and the elegant crowd is made up of groups and figures taken entirely from various plates of the ‘Pamela’ series, including Maclean himself, who is based on the bridegroom in plate IX, with chains added to his legs (repr. Hugh Phillips, Mid-Georgian London, 1964, p.68, fig.77).

The set of paintings remained on show in Highmore's studio, where they drew visitors and stimulated commissions, until his retirement in 1762.

N03573 I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing

Oil on canvas 651×759 (25 5/8×29 7/8)

EXHIBITED Kenwood 1963 (15); on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum 1973–6
ENGRAVED (Not reversed) by Louis Truchy, published 1 July 1745, numbered 1, with the text: ‘Pamela is represented in this first Piece, writing in her late Lady's dressing room, her History being known only by her letters. She is here surprised by Mr B. who improves this occasion to further his designs.’
LITERATURE Collins-Baker 1921, repr. facing p.10; Eaves 1951, pp.361–2, pl.III; Edwards 1969, p.150, fig.4 (detail); Paulson 1971, II, p.13; Lewis 1975, II, p.542, no.251, III, figs.152, 153

Unlike the other background pictures in the series, such as the ancestral portraits in plate VIII, and the overmantel of mother and child (possibly also representing Charity) to echo Pamela's own happy motherhood and attitudes in the final plate, the picture of ‘The Good Samaritan’ here is displayed centrally, in its entirety, and practically unobscured by other details. It could refer to Pamela's dead mistress, whose charitable treatment of the heroine - in giving her a good education that raises her from her lowly position and then entrusting her to the further care of her son - could be said to parallel the actions of the Good Samaritan.

On another level, it might also reflect the fact that Highmore was working on his important history painting ‘The Good Samaritan’ (T00076) at about the same time as the ‘Pamela’ series. The picture shown here is quite different in format and design from T00076 and may have been introduced by the artist into this predictably popular series (it shows up even more clearly in the engraving) to broadcast subtly his ability to vary the scene in several ways, and so to forestall any accusations of plagiarising Hogarth's well-known canvas of 1737 of the same subject in St Bartholomew's Hospital.

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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