Portrait of Lady Tate is a large figurative oil painting on a woven linen canvas by the German-born British artist Sir Hubert von Herkomer. The sitter is shown seated and facing forward in this nearly full-length portrait. She is depicted in a soft palette of pink, purple, grey, white, gold and brown against a dark red-brown and black background. She dominates the composition in her formal attire and jewelled hairpiece, and the plain backdrop accentuates the delicate colours of the draperies of her dress.
This painting was most likely made in Lululaund, von Herkomer’s romanesque-style house and studio in Melbourne Road in Bushey, Hertfordshire, UK. It was begun in 1899 and was commissioned by the subject’s husband, the collector, philanthropist and sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate (1819–1899), founder of the National Gallery of British Art, later named the Tate Gallery. Von Herkomer had completed Sir Henry’s own portrait in 1897, the year that the National Gallery of British Art opened on Millbank in London (see Sir Henry Tate 1897, Tate N03517). In this portrait of Lady Tate, the paint has been applied thickly across the figure and her draperies in generous flowing brushstrokes, but more thinly across the background.
In 1885, at the age of thirty-five, Amy Hislop became Lady Tate, the second wife of Sir Henry Tate. Lady Tate was herself a philanthropist and was responsible for presenting John Everett Millais’s (1829–1896) The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 (Tate N01691) to Tate in 1900 in memory of her husband, and for bequeathing a further eight works of art to the Tate collection, including von Herkomer’s Sir Henry Tate. Letters in the Tate Archive indicate that the artist originally started the portrait as a three-quarter-length image but sought Sir Henry’s permission to change it to a format that sat somewhere between full-length and three-quarter-length, stating that the latter would have given the subject ‘little dignity’ (Von Herkomer in a letter to Sir Henry Tate, c.1899, Tate Archive TGA 7811/3/46-52). Lady Tate was known to be an extrovert who enjoyed attending formal occasions, and as such von Herkomer has attempted to capture the lively personality of his subject through her pose. She is seated, yet seems relaxed and is smiling directly at the viewer. Furthermore, the vigorous application of paint to form the figure and her clothing adds to the dynamic presentation of the sitter.
The background itself is plain and similar in colour to that of von Herkomer’s Sir Henry Tate. This could indicate that Portrait of Lady Tate is a pendant picture to the earlier portrait of her husband. Further credence is given to this suggestion when considering the poses of the figures: when hung side by side, each figure would seem to incline toward the other. The use of a blank background and formal seated pose is a convention of European portraiture and can be seen in the work of many of von Herkomer’s contemporaries, including Millais and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The figure is presented to us as a genuine character and this portrait can be seen as one that both looks back to the more formal traditions of European portrait painting and forward to twentieth-century portraiture which, according to the art historian Shearer West, saw ‘deeper explorations of individuality and personality’ (Shearer West, Portraiture, Oxford 2004, p.17). Art historian Lee MacCormick Edwards has further emphasised this duality in the artist’s work, claiming that
while Herkomer was very much a man of his time as far as the narrative aspect of his art is concerned, his ability to reinterpret a traditional thematic repertoire with bold realism and stylistic devices such as flattened or abstracted forms, arbitrary colours and slashing brushstrokes – all working to produce a heightened emotional intensity – reveal a vision closely in tune with forward-looking developments on the international stage.
(Edwards 1999, p.132.)
At the time that Portrait of Lady Tate was painted, von Herkomer had established himself as a graphic artist and painter of genre scenes, and as a leading art educator. He had directly followed John Ruskin (1819–1900) as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford in 1885–1894 and ran his own art school at Bushey. His reputation was established by such paintings as The Last Muster – Sunday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea 1875 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool), but from the 1880s onwards he also turned his attention to portraiture, with great critical and commercial success.
Alfred Lys Baldry, Hubert von Herkomer: A Study and a Biography, London 1901.
John Saxon Mills, The Life and Letters of Sir Hubert von Herkomer C.V.O, R.A.: A Study in Struggle and Success, London 1923.
Lee MacCormick Edwards, Hubert von Herkomer: A Victorian Artist, Aldershot 1999.
Supported by Christie’s.
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Technique and condition
This oil painting is on a piece of plainly woven linen canvas with 10 threads per centimetre in both weave directions. Some time in the late twentieth century it was lined with wax-resin adhesive onto a very heavily woven, bast-fibre canvas, the back of which is painted with aluminium paint. The lining is reinforced at three corners with extra strips of canvas, presumably because of the force exerted by the stretcher. This is a modern type probably fitted in the United States of America. It is composed of four outer bars of stained pine with mitred corners. Each inner corner if fitted with a grey metal spring mechanism, and a horizontal metal rod across the middle of the painting is attached to inner edge of the pine bars with similar springing. This means that the painting is held under constant tension.
The ground is a thin, smooth, white preparation which extends onto the tacking edges. The figure appears to have been laid in with thin, sketchy brown paint. The visible paint varies in thickness and application. On the figure it is thick, creamy and copious, applied with bold flowing brushwork in the drapery and small overlapping dabs in the face. In the dark background it is thinner and leaner and was applied in rhythmical scumbles. Some parts of the background have developed minor drying cracks. The varnish is modern.
All the paint is in good condition except for an unusual defect which probably stems from the method of painting; some areas have developed sharp, raised cracks which have been held in this position by the lining. The whole figure has been affected except for the bodice and parts of the skirt. The presence of cracks just beyond the outlines of the figure indicates that adjustment of the pose and likeness during painting is the origin of the problem. Examination in raking light reveals the marks made by the original stretcher, a four-part rectangle supported by a vertical and horizontal cross bar. The horizontal bar is not central, but there is no evidence that the painting has been enlarged in one direction, which might explain this odd position.