- Tilly Kettle 1734 or 5–1786
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 762 x 629 mm
- Bequeathed by Sir Claude Phillips 1925
Tilly Kettle 1734 or 5–1786
Young Man in a Fawn Coat
Oil paint on canvas
762 x 629 mm
Bequeathed by Sir Claude Phillips 1925
… Miss Schroder, Heathfield, Sussex; sold from her collection at Christie’s, London, 21 February 1913, no.58 (as by Francis Cotes, ‘Portrait of a Gentleman, in drab coat and vest’); purchased for £21.0.0 by Messrs Arthur Tooth, London, by whom reportedly sold as a portrait by Cotes of ’R. Cumberland’ at Robinson and Fishers, London, 1923 … bequeathed by Sir Claude Phillips (1846-1924) to the National Gallery, London, in 1925; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1949.
This portrait in a standard three-quarter length format shows the unidentified male sitter dressed in a pale pinkish-brown coloured jacket and waistcoat, with a lightly frilled shirt and neckcloth. He wears his own hair, unpowdered, and is posed against a clouded grey sky before what appears to be a stone pillar or the corner of a stone structure to the far right, onto which his shadow falls. The sitter leans to his right, with his bent right arm intended to appear as if it is resting on an implied balustrade. From the accepted dating of the work and on the basis of comparisons with other paintings by Kettle showing male subjects in a similar format and costume, it can be deduced that the painting was created in India and shows an employee of the East India Company, the commercial organisation which established British economic and political influence over the subcontinent in the eighteenth century.
The work is not signed or dated, although in his 1927 catalogue of Tilly Kettle’s works, James D. Milner, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, asserted that it was by that artist and that it was painted in c.1772–3 on the basis of the perceived similarities of style and costume between this work and Kettle’s full-length double portrait of Charles and Captain John Sealy 1773 (Courtauld Gallery, London), which was painted by Kettle in India.1 Kettle was one of the first British painters to relocate successfully to India, moving to Madras in 1769 with the East India Company after having spent the first decade of his career establishing himself as a portraitist in London and Oxford. The expanding and increasingly wealthy community of Britons working for the East India Company on the subcontinent promised new professional opportunities for artists and an alternative to the intensely competitive London art world. Kettle was based in Faizabad in 1772, where there was very little British presence, but returned to the East India Company’s capital, Calcutta, at the end of that year, and remained there until 1776, when he moved back to England.
Milner’s 1927 study remains the main reference work on this artist and the attribution has not been challenged. Young Man in a Fawn Coat could also be compared to several other male portraits by or attributed to Kettle and dating from his time in India, which show sitters in similar costumes and/or comparable formats. These might include the large three-quarter length portrait attributed to Kettle of Henry Vansittart, Governor of Bengal (Lyme Park, National Trust) showing the sitter in a very similar buff suit; the portraits of Alexander Davison, Governor of Madras 1770 (Christ Church, Oxford) and William Wych 1774–5 (Clevedon, National Trust), in which the sitters wear coats of a similar colour lined with blue over a blue waistcoat; Edward Holland (c.1770; private collection), an employee of the East India Company, and the portrait of Baron Pigot, formerly known as ‘A Man in a Buff Coat’, published in the Illustrated London News in 1957 and said to be in the collection of Captain H.A. Fanklyn and dated 1769.2 The sitter in the latter painting, shown seated at a table in a half-length format, appears to be dressed almost identically to the sitter in Young Man in a Fawn Coat, and shares very similar facial features (and may conceivably represent the same sitter). In Milner’s catalogue, this group of portraits is characterised thus: ‘all show the same thinnish pigment, simple drawing yet broad modelling of the face, the neckcloth and lace cravat and ruffles are skilfully rendered, there is the same effect of lighting and purplish liverish tone in the sky though none of these is signed by the artist’.3 Examining Kettle’s male portraits in the wider context of portraiture among the British in India, the historian Mildred Archer later commented: ‘Here are “nabobs” [the slang term for wealthy officers of the East India Company] with resolute faces, smartly but not brashly dressed and without a trace of the domineering vulgarity that had so affronted their countrymen in England. There is as yet no hint of India and the settings with their plain or clouded backgrounds and sturdy columns could as well be those of Bath as of Madras’.4 Although the present painting is on a standard three-quarter length format (around 30 x 25 inches, or around 76.2 x 63.5 cms), like the comparable pictures of Alexander Davison and William Wynch mentioned above, the composition is unusual in truncating so abruptly the sitter’s torso. Notably, this means that the right hand is not visible even though the edge of his right sleeve and some of his cuff does appear, and that the overall arrangement of the figure (and how he is meant to be supporting himself) not readily legible. The former Tate conservator Rica Jones noted after an examination of the picture in 2004 that it ‘has almost certainly been cut down from a much larger portrait’.5 The portrait may originally have been a full length portrait, or a three-quarter length like the portrait of Henry Vansittart attributed to Kettle (as noted above, Lyme Park) where the figure is posed beside a classical column and shown leaning back onto one elbow in a very similar fashion.
It can be surmised, then, following Milner’s dating of the work on stylistic grounds, that the portrait would have been painted in Calcutta (and therefore at the very end of 1772 or in 1773). Furthermore, comparisons with Kettle’s portraits of men associated with the East India Company would suggest that the sitter was a civil servant working for the Company on the Indian subcontinent, despite the fact that his costume is of the type worn within Europe at the same time, and that the he even wears the pleated ‘stock’ around his neck covering the collar of his shirt, which many European men in India would dispense with as a small concession to the heat.6
The earliest known documentation of the painting dates from 1913, when it was sold at Christie’s from the collection of a Miss Schroder, Heathfield, Sussex. At that sale and subsequently it was identified as a work by Francis Cotes (1726–1770). At that sale and subsequently it was identified as a work by Francis Cotes (1726–1770). It was newly identified as by Kettle when bequeathed to the National Gallery by the art historian and former Keeper of the Wallace Collection, Sir Claude Phillips (1846–1924)7 There the picture was treated as a secondary work, not for the main displays and instead part of the ‘reference collection’.8 Making the case for the acquisition of Kettle’s more obviously striking full length portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’ exhibited 1765 (Tate T03373), the Keeper at the Tate Gallery, where Young Man in a Fawn Coat had been transferred in 1949, referred dismissively to the present work a ‘dull’.9 In a personal note to the Keeper, the Assistant Keeper Elizabeth Einberg had been even more emphatic in calling this picture ‘BORING’.10 Such value judgements must have been reinforced by the former condition of the painting; when it was prepared for display in 2004 the conservator noted that it had been very dirty, and the cleaning that took place then improved its appearance considerably.11