Nathaniel Hone

Sketch for ‘The Conjuror’


Nathaniel Hone 1718–1784
Oil paint on wood
Support: 575 × 819 mm
frame: 765 × 940 × 70 mm
Purchased 1967


This is the oil sketch for Hone's satirical painting The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception (Dublin, The National Gallery of Ireland), a picture that caused one of the greatest art scandals of the British eighteenth-century art world. Nathaniel Hone submitted the finished picture to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1775. The Academy's Hanging Committee rejected it on the grounds that it was offensive to one of its female members, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). However, the main object of Hone's satire was not Kauffman but the Academy's president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92).

The present oil sketch is painted on a wooden panel and is signed and dated 1775. As in the finished painting, it shows a bearded conjuror pointing his wand towards a fire. It is kindled by an assortment of old-master prints from which a framed oil painting emerges. Leaning across his knee, arms folded, is a young smiling girl. In the background, at the extreme top left, a group of naked figures cavort before St Paul's Cathedral, waving palettes and paintbrushes before them. The conjuror is intended to represent Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder President of the Royal Academy. The young girl is meant to be Angelica Kauffman, another founder member of the Academy, and allegedly a former lover of Reynolds. However, it was not the representation of Kauffman leaning across the conjuror's knee which apparently offended her, so much as the inclusion of a naked woman in black stockings among the group of artists (which has since been painted over in the finished picture). The latter was an allusion to Kauffman's role in a current project by Reynolds and various Academicians to decorate St Paul's Cathedral with religious paintings.

From the 1750s Reynolds had incorporated motifs and attitudes from the old masters into his portraits, on the grounds that such 'imitation' elevated his own works to the level of history painting. Hone alluded to Reynolds's practice in the present picture through the depiction of a number of old-master prints that had formed the basis of his own paintings. They include, just below the group of naked figures, an engraving after the Slumbering Silenus Tied up with Tendrils by Francesco Romanelli (1610-62), which Reynolds had used as a source for his group portrait, Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (Tate N00079) of 1774. Similarly, at the bottom left, just above the fire, Hone included a detail from Diana's Nymphs Disarming Cupids by Francesco Albani (1578-1660), upon which Reynolds had modelled his portrait of the Duchess of Manchester and her son, Viscount Manderville of 1769 (The National Trust, Wimpole Hall). Directly below the conjuror's outstretched hand is a small print after the figure of Aminadab by Michelangelo (1475-1564), which Reynolds had used for the principal figure in his history painting, Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon of 1773 (The National Trust, Knole). Reynolds's studio model for Ugolino was an old beggar named George White (see the short text for Tate N00106), whom Hone also used as the model for his own conjuror.

In May 1775, following its rejection by the Royal Academy and an exchange of letters between the relevant parties (see Butlin, pp.2-3), Hone exhibited the finished version of The Conjuror at a one-man exhibition in St Martin's Lane. By this time he had painted out the naked figures in the top left-hand corner of the picture and replaced them with a group of clothed male figures seated around a table. After Hone's death the whereabouts of the finished picture remained unknown, until it appeared at auction in 1944. The National Gallery of Ireland subsequently acquired it in 1967. Shortly before this, in September 1966, the present oil sketch was located in Brazil, evidently having passed to one of Hone's descendants who had emigrated there. The Tate Gallery acquired the sketch the following year, together with a rare copy of the catalogue of Hone's 1775 exhibition.

Further reading:
Martin Butlin, 'An eighteenth-century art-scandal: Nathaniel Hone's "The Conjuror"', Connoisseur, vol. 174, May 1970, pp.1-9
John Newman, 'Reynolds and Hone. "The Conjuror" Unmasked, in Nicholas Penny (ed.) Reynolds, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1986, pp.344-54

Martin Postle
June 2001

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Display caption

This is a sketch for a satirical painting which caused scandal when the artist tried to exhibit it. The ‘conjuror’ is Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy. He is shown magically creating new paintings from prints by other artists. Hone’s finished painting was rejected from the Royal Academy’s 1775 exhibition. One of the reasons given was that it shows the artist Angelica Kauffman dancing naked in the group of artists at the top left. It’s been suggested that Hone’s real offence was his suggestion that Reynolds stole ideas and poses from well-known paintings.

Gallery label, July 2019

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Catalogue entry

Nathaniel Hone 1718–1784

T00938 Sketch for ‘The Conjuror’ 1775

Inscribed ‘NHone pt 1775’, incised b.l.
Oil on panel, 22¿ x 32 5/16 (65.25 x 82).
Purchased from Senor Florindo Ferreira dos Santos (Grant-in-Aid) 1967.
Coll: ? the artist’s family; found in the interior of Brazil by Theodoro Leopoldo Mellinger and sold 1967 to Florinda Ferreira dos Santos, Portugal.
Lit: Frances A Gerard, Angelica Kauffmann, 1892, pp. 151–7; John Thomas Smith (ed. Wilfred Whitten), Nollekens and his Times, 1920, I, pp. 118–127; Lady Victoria Manners and G C Williamson, Angelica Kauffmann, R.A., 1924, pp. 42–5; William T Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700–1799, 1928, II, pp. 265–8; A N L Munby, ‘Letters of British Artists of the XVIIIth and XIXth Centuries - Part I’, in Connoisseur, CXVIII, 1946, pp. 24–6; A N L Munby, ‘Nathaniel Hone’s “Conjuror” ’, in Connoisseur, CXX, 1947, pp. 82–4; Adeline Hartcup, Angelica, 1954, pp. 100–9; Sidney C Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy, 1968, pp. 58–9.

This is the sketch for the larger painting in oil on canvas, 56¿ x 68¿, now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (repr. Connoisseur, CXX, 1947, p. 83, Hartcup, op. cit., facing p. 101 and Hutchison, op. cit., pl. 15). This was submitted for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1775 but excluded following representations by Angelica Kauffmann that it depicted her in the nude. Hone then made the picture the centre of an exhibition of his own works at 70 St Martin’s Lane (55), giving his version of the affair as a preface to the catalogue. The offending figure and its naked companions were painted out and replaced by the group of clothed men drinking at a table now to be seen in the background.

A contemporary account (copy in the Gallery files; see also Whitley, 1928, II, pp. 266–7) states that ‘In the Perspective is a View of St Paul’s, with six Artists at work on it, whose Productions evaporate in Smoke’ (the italics are original; in fact the head and shoulder of a seventh figure can be seen in the Tate’s picture). Angelica Kauffmann, in a letter to Sir William Chambers (reprinted and partly reproduced. Connoisseur, CXVIII, 1946, pp. 24–5), complains of ‘the figure of the Woman siting presenting a trompet’; in the sketch the seated figure, which holds a horn, appears to be bearded while the female with long hair cavorting in black stockings, apparently holding palette and brush, could be taken as playing a trumpet. X-ray photographs of the Dublin picture show naked figures similar to those in the sketch but apparently somewhat differently arranged.

Both Hone in his preface and Angelica Kauffmann in her letter to Chambers imply that Hone’s offer to paint out the offending figure was acceptable to the Academy’s representatives but, as Hone goes on to say, ‘other motives work’d the concluding part, tho’ this was to be the ostensible reason for the extraordinary conduct of rejecting the works of an Academician.‘It is probable that the rejection was in fact occasioned by the painting’s barely concealed attack on Reynolds as a plagiarist of the Old Masters. The engravings represented seem to have been chosen for their relationship to specific pictures by Reynolds (see-Munby in Connoisseur, CXX, 1947, p. 84). Hone drove the point home by painting the figure of the Conjurer from Reynolds’ favourite model, ‘Old George’ White the paviour, who sat for ‘Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon’ and ‘A Captain of the Banditti’ exhibited by Reynolds in 1773 and 1772 respectively, and by basing the composition of the two main figures on the ‘Ugolino’.

The scene in the background refers to the fruitless offer of Reynolds and five fellow artists, including Angelica Kauffmann, to decorate St Paul’s in 1773. It may also allude to the controversy over ‘smoking’ pictures and giving them an Old Masterly appearance with a deep shadowy tonality. This seems to be the point made by the contemporary account quoted above and Hone’s catalogue preface refers to his having painted out all the naked figures ‘as the merit of the picture does not depend upon a few smoked academy figures. ‘ The be-stockinged figure appears to be painting with smoke while the seated bearded figure waving a horn, whose presence is otherwise unexplained among the other figures holding what seem to be palettes, is probably a joint allusion to Fame and Time.

The Tate’s picture, when acquired by Senor Mellinger ‘in the interior of Brazil’ (undated letter of about September 1966) was accompanied by Hone’s commission as a Lieutenant in the 111th Regiment of Foot dated 9 December 1762, the catalogue of Hone’s exhibition of 1775 and the contemporary press-cutting referred to above, and a press-cutting from The Daily Telegraph of 27 July 1929 referring to the sale of a portrait by Hone. These suggest that the picture remained in the possession of the artist’s family until a recent date and was perhaps taken to Brazil by one of them. All the documents are now at the Tate Gallery.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.

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