Lords, Ladies and the ‘Middling Sort’: Portraiture 1740-c.1820s

Portrait painting in Britain can be said to have begun with the visit of the German artist Hans Holbein (1497/98-1543) to England in 1526. Prior to this, persons desiring portraits of themselves and their families were forced to travel abroad. Holbein’s success as a portraitist – he portrayed almost a quarter of the English peerage – brought the genre into prominence. By 1600, the practice of sitting for one’s likeness had become an accepted part of upper-class life.

However, with a lessening of the distinctions between the upper and middle ranks, a new type of patron emerged by the second quarter of the eighteenth century: the professional man. The commissioning of portraits, once the preserve of the aristocracy and gentry, now also became the norm for the middle classes, the ‘middling sort’, whose members included doctors, bankers, lawyers and their families. Such was the demand by these upwardly mobile patrons that by the 1780s, in London alone, there were well over 100 portrait painters, from the famous to the not-so-well known. There were many more in the provinces.

Portraits are an expression of class and status, a reflection of life and manners, dynastic pride and the continuity of family links. A variety of circumstances led to sittings: marriage, the desire to immortalise a loved one, greater affluence or the demands of friendship. However, by the mid-eighteenth century, changes in approaches to portraiture meant that artists had to find different ways of showing the status of their sitters other than the crown, insignia and sword of former times. Signs of wealth, rank and breeding could take a variety of forms: rich dress, the display of polite postures, or the inclusion of references to classical antiquity. Scale could also be an indicator; portraits of the aristocracy, intended for grand residences, were often majestic full-lengths, whereas middle-class sitters, whose homes were smaller, generally commissioned works of more modest proportions.

Whatever the size of the painting or the allusions used by the artist, eighteenth and nineteenth-century portraits require to be ‘read’ by the viewer, in order to appreciate the meaning behind the likeness. Hopefully, the selection of works included here will encourage this process.

Portrait of an Unknown Man (1748)

Portrait of an Unknown Man (1748)

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Portrait of a Woman (c. 1785-95)

Portrait of a Woman (c. 1785-95)

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Richard Boyle, 2nd Earl of Shannon (1727-1807) (1748)

Richard Boyle, 2nd Earl of Shannon (1727-1807) (1748)

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Harriet Anne, Countess of Belfast (1799-1860) (c. 1822-23)

Harriet Anne, Countess of Belfast (1799-1860) (c. 1822-23)

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Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-99) (c. 1780)

Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-99) (c. 1780)

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Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

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Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

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Portrait of a Boy (c. 1740)

Portrait of a Boy (c. 1740)

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Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (c. 1810)

Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (c. 1810)

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Mrs. Francis Johnston (1769-1841) (c. 1810)

Mrs. Francis Johnston (1769-1841) (c. 1810)

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James Stewart (1741-1821) of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1767)

James Stewart (1741-1821) of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1767)

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William Ritchie (1756-1834) (c. 1802)

William Ritchie (1756-1834) (c. 1802)

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Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (early 1820s)

Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (early 1820s)

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John Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down (1745-1804) (1775)

John Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down (1745-1804) (1775)

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Portrait of an Unknown Man (1748)

John Lewis (fl. 1740-69)

An obscure artist and probably of English origin, Lewis worked as a scene painter at Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre 1750-57 and maintained a successful portrait practice in the city from c. 1740. His sitters included a number of theatrical personalities, of whom the actress Peg Woffington is probably the best known. Recent research has revealed that he was also a fine landscape painter.

Image: John Lewis (fl. 1740-69)
Portrait of an Unknown Man (1748) © National Museums Northern Ireland
John Lewis (fl. 1740-69) Portrait of an Unknown Man (1748) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Though many of Lewis’s patrons were associated with the stage, the earnestness of the sitter’s expression and general demeanour suggests otherwise. The relative simplicity of his attire indicates that he belongs to the merchant class and may perhaps be a Dissenter. Note his keen and penetrating gaze and intelligent and discerning air.

 

Portrait of a Woman (c. 1785-95)

Sir William Beechey (1753-1839)

William Beechey studied at the Royal Academy schools and with Johann Zoffany and began exhibiting at the Academy in 1776. In 1793 he was appointed court painter to Queen Charlotte and subsequently received a knighthood. This portrait of an unknown elderly lady was probably painted in the early 1790s, before he took up society portraiture.

Image: Sir William Beechey (1753-1839)
Portrait of a Woman (c. 1785-95) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Sir William Beechey (1753-1839) Portrait of a Woman (c. 1785-95) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Although impossible to be specific, it seems likely that the sitter is a widow. Despite her somewhat melancholy demeanour, she retains an eye for fashion, in her powdered hair style and fine quality clothes. The unassuming nature of the portrait leads one to suppose that she is from the ranks of the middle classes.

 

Richard Boyle, 2nd Earl of Shannon (1727-1807) (1748)

Arthur Devis (1712-87)

Preston-born Arthur Devis began his career as a landscape painter. In the mid-1730s he moved to London and set up as a portraitist, concentrating mostly on small-scale paintings of informal groups in domestic surroundings, the portrait type known as the conversation piece. In time he devoted himself almost exclusively to these. Though virtually forgotten in the nineteenth century, he is now regarded as one of the leading exponents of the conversation piece in England.

Image: Arthur Devis (1712-87)
Richard Boyle, 2nd Earl of Shannon (1727-1807) (1748)  © National Museums Northern Ireland
Arthur Devis (1712-87) Richard Boyle, 2nd Earl of Shannon (1727-1807) (1748) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Boyle, who was MP for Dungarvan, County Waterford 1749-60 and for County Cork 1761-64, held several high political offices, including those of Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and First Lord of the Treasury.

The portrait, which shows him as a young man of nineteen, may have been commissioned to celebrate his graduation from Trinity College, Dublin in 1748. As befits a young man of his station, he is depicted assuming one of the mannerisms regarded as essential in polite society: the hand tucked inside the waistcoat. A genteel pose like this was intended to distinguish the gentleman from the ‘rude Rustick’.

The peculiar stiffness of his figure is attributable to the fact that Devis had little training in life-drawing and instead, relied heavily upon a jointed wooden doll (or mannequin) upon which to model the poses of his sitters.

 

Harriet Anne, Countess of Belfast (1799-1860) (c. 1822-23)

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)

A child prodigy and virtually self-taught, Sir Thomas Lawrence began exhibiting portraits at the Royal Academy in 1787 and became enormously successful, being appointed painter to the king aged only twenty-three. He received a knighthood in 1815. 

By the 1820s he was recognised as the leading portrait painter in Europe.  Described as ‘Il Tiziano Inglese’ (‘the English Titian’) by admiring Italians on account of his bravura brushwork and use of rich colour, his work has a theatricality and sparkle in keeping with the spirit of the Romantic age of the early nineteenth century.

Image: Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
Harriet Anne, Countess of Belfast (1799-1860) (c. 1822-23) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) Harriet Anne, Countess of Belfast (1799-1860) (c. 1822-23) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Harriet Anne Butler, eldest daughter of the 1st Earl of Glengall, married George Hamilton, Earl of Belfast and later 3rd Marquess of Donegall, in 1822. The couple had three children: George Augustus, Viscount Chichester (1826-27), Frederick Richard, Earl of Belfast (1827-53) and Harriet, who married the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury. 

The sheer scale of this portrait, with its courtly attributes of curtain and sculptural backdrop, together with the obvious richness of the sitter’s dress (notice the sheen on the velvet) point to a person of consequence. Her relaxed demeanour despite the formal pose, combined with the dramatic landscape background, lend an air of Romanticism to the work. The painting may have been a bethrothal or wedding portrait.

 

Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-99) (c. 1780)

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)

Gainsborough was one of the greatest portrait painters of his day (and also one of the founders of the British school of landscape painting). A pupil of the French engraver Hubert Gravelot in London in the early 1740s, he later worked in his native Sudbury (in Suffolk) and then Ipswich, by which point his reputation as a portraitist was well established. 

In 1759 he moved to Bath and there evolved a new style of portrait appropriate for his fashionable sitters, an amalgamation of the elegance of Van Dyck, whom he much admired, with his own more informal approach. In 1774 he settled in London, where he became Reynolds’ chief rival in portraiture and a favourite painter of the royal family.

Image: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)
Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-99) (c. 1780) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-99) (c. 1780) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Arthur Chichester, 5th Earl of Donegall (a family with long associations with Belfast) was raised to the British peerage as Baron Fisherwick in 1790 and in the following year, was created 1st Marquess of Donegall. 

Gainsborough developed this particular type of portrait – full-length, life-size and with an imaginary landscape background – during his Bath period. The cross-legged stance of the sitter was a common convention in male portraiture (one of the best-known examples is Nicholas Hilliard’s Young Man among Roses of c. 1587) and was intended to convey an air of upper-class insouciance. This attitude, combined with the scale and quality of the painting, point to a sitter of high status. 

The broken, rapid brushwork of the trees and vegetation is typical of Gainsborough’s landscape style.

 

Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)

The contrast between this work and the portrait of Theodosia by Reynolds is a striking illustration of the different approaches to portraiture taken by Gainsborough and Reynolds. To the former, the catching of a likeness was ‘the principal beauty and intention of a Portrait’, whilst Reynolds, on the other hand, held ‘mere likeness’ in low esteem and sought to intellectualise his works, to imbue his paintings with symbols of erudition.

Image: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)
Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Like the portrait by Reynolds, this picture was also painted to celebrate Theodosia Magill’s marriage to Sir John Meade.

The work dates from Gainsborough’s period in Bath 1759-74, when he developed a portrait style which combined the elegance of Van Dyck with his own more informal approach. These traits can be seen in this picture, in its overall elegance (note the richness of the costume and the play of light on silks and satins) and in the pose of the sitter, who confronts the spectator full-face, with an air of informality and welcome.

 

Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)

Sir Joshua Reynolds is undoubtedly the most important figure in British painting of the eighteenth century.

The son of a Devon schoolmaster, he served an apprenticeship in London with the portraitist Thomas Hudson 1740-43 and thereafter practised in London and Devon until 1749, when he went to Italy. His sojourn there until mid-1752 reinforced his belief in history painting as the highest form of art and led to the development of his future style: a portrait type which used poses, gestures and classical references found in the art of the past.

On his return to England, he became recognised as one of the foremost portraitists in the country. In 1768 he was elected first president of the newly-founded Royal Academy and in the following year, was given a knighthood. In his capacity as president he brought to the artistic profession in Britain a leadership and gravitas it had never known before.

Image: Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)
Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) Miss Theodosia Magill (1744-1817), afterwards Countess of Clanwilliam (1765) © National Museums Northern Ireland

The portrait was painted to celebrate the marriage of Theodosia Magill of Gill Hall, County Down to Sir John Meade (later Earl of Clanwilliam) on 29 August 1765.

The work is a typical example of Reynolds’ ‘Grand Manner’ style (that is, based on history painting), in showing the sitter in simple, timeless draperies akin to classical robes, rather than in fashionable contemporary dress; also, by the reference to classical antiquity, in the inclusion of the large antique vase to the right. Reynolds’ paintings were generally destined to be hung in grand reception rooms. This portrait, with its air of formality and dignity, was probably intended for such a location.

 

Portrait of a Boy (c. 1740)

Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) (attributed to)

One of the most distinguished portraitists of the reign of George II, Highmore set up as a portrait painter in 1715. His practice was varied and included full-lengths, small-scale full-lengths and conversation pieces. Like his contemporary William Hogarth, he specialized in lively and naturalistic portraits of the middle classes.

Image: Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) (attributed to)
Portrait of a Boy (c. 1740) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) (attributed to) Portrait of a Boy (c. 1740) © National Museums Northern Ireland

The youth in this painting is shown within a feigned oval, a rococo adaptation of the formal baroque portrait. Highmore is known to have delighted in the fresh handling of paint, a characteristic strongly evident here, in the sheen on the sitter’s velvet jacket and the highlights on his gold buttons and brocade waistcoat.

 

Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (c. 1810)

Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840)

The father and son team of Edward and John Smyth were sculptors of Dublin. Smyth senior, one of the most distinguished sculptors of his day, was a favourite of the architect James Gandon, who employed him to decorate the Custom House and many of his other buildings in the city.

Smyth was also commissioned by the architect Francis Johnston to carve the decorative heads for the chapel of Dublin Castle. These busts of Johnston and his wife may have come about as a result of the working relationship between himself and Smyth.

Image: Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840)
Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (c. 1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840) Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (c. 1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Johnston, the professional man, is shown with accoutrements useful to his calling, namely books on geometry (Euclid), Roman architecture (Vitruvius) and Renaissance architecture (Palladio).

Curly-haired and bare-necked, with cloak tossed nonchalantly around his shoulders, he is depicted in the manner of a Byronic hero. The mood of the piece is that of Romanticism, of a feeling of self-fulfilment and the importance of the imagination. A portrait of Johnston as an older man is also included in this tour.

 

Mrs. Francis Johnston (1769-1841) (c. 1810)

Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840)

Image: Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840)
Mrs. Francis Johnston (1769-1841) (c. 1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Edward and John Smyth (1749-1812) (c. 1773-1840) Mrs. Francis Johnston (1769-1841) (c. 1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Probably the most distinguishing feature of this bust is Mrs. Johnston’s adherence to the then fashion for the Neoclassical, shown in her costume and curled hairstyle. Although the busts of the Johnstons were almost certainly produced at the same time, the variation in their styles – Neoclassical and Romantic – makes an interesting contrast.

 

James Stewart (1741-1821) of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1767)

Pompeo Batoni (1708-87)

Batoni was one of the most celebrated artists in Rome during the eighteenth century. 

A painter of altarpieces, historical and mythological works and portraits, he is best known for the latter. His portrait style, characterised by bravura poses, the inclusion of classical sculpture and meticulous treatment of rich fabrics, found particular favour with the British and Irish aristocracy and landed classes visiting Rome on the ‘Grand Tour’. Indeed, his ability to portray this type of sitter as a cultured traveller made his portraits the de rigueur trophies of ‘Grand Tourists’.  This kind of portrait, of which he was the acknowledged creator, became his speciality.

Image: Pompeo Batoni (1708-87)
James Stewart (1741-1821) of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1767) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Pompeo Batoni (1708-87) James Stewart (1741-1821) of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1767) © National Museums Northern Ireland

James Stewart, a member of a prosperous gentry family of Killymoon, near Cookstown, County Tyrone, visited Italy on the Grand Tour 1766-68. 

The portrait shows him wearing the uniform of the 13th Dragoons, an Irish cavalry regiment in which he held the rank of captain. In the background, close by his right arm, is one of Batoni’s studio props, a bust of Minerva. 

The sensitive treatment of face and hands shows Batoni’s technique at its finest, whilst the naturalness of the sitter’s expression conveys an intriguing mixture of arrogance and vulnerability, a demeanour probably characteristic of many young men on the Grand Tour. The overall feeling of richness in the portrait seems to accord with Stewart’s privileged position in society.

On his return to Ireland in 1768, he was elected MP for County Tyrone and served the constituency until 1812.

 

William Ritchie (1756-1834) (c. 1802)

Thomas Robinson (c. 1810)

The portrait and landscape painter Thomas Robinson, who came from Westmoreland, moved to Ireland around 1790 and lived in Dublin and various parts of the north before settling in Belfast in 1801.

Most of his sitters came from the town’s merchant and professional classes, the ‘middling sort’ who developed Belfast’s commercial and cultural life. In 1808 he returned to Dublin, where he spent his last few years.

Although not in the first rank of portraitists, his position in the art world of the north is an important one, as he painted a wide range of Belfast society.

Image: Thomas Robinson (c. 1810)
William Ritchie (1756-1834) (c. 1802) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Thomas Robinson (c. 1810) William Ritchie (1756-1834) (c. 1802) © National Museums Northern Ireland

William Ritchie was the founder of Belfast shipbuilding. A Scot, he first visited Belfast in March 1791 by invitation of a group of local merchants and returned with a workforce some months later, to establish the first shipyard in town.

As often found in portraits of the professional classes, the painting contains symbols relevant to the sitter’s livelihood, in this case the statue of the sea-god Neptune which Ritchie leans against and the boats and shipbuilding to the right.

It is interesting to note that although Ritchie belongs to the middle ranks, Robinson has added dignity and status to the portrait by depicting him in the cross-legged pose common in images of the upper classes. A further point of interest is that whilst the painting shows Ritchie full-length, it is executed on a domestic scale, presumably to suit his terrace house in the town centre.

 

Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (early 1820s)

Thomas Clement Thompson (c. 1780-1857)

A native of Belfast, Thompson studied in Dublin and began his career as a miniaturist before abandoning this for large-scale portraiture.

After 1817 he established a successful practice in London, returning to Ireland only occasionally. Amongst his sitters were George IV and the Marquess of Ormonde. A founder member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, he had a fluid technique and vigorous lively style.

Image: Thomas Clement Thompson (c. 1780-1857)
Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (early 1820s) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Thomas Clement Thompson (c. 1780-1857) Francis Johnston (1760-1829) (early 1820s) © National Museums Northern Ireland

Like the nearby portrait of William Ritchie, this painting also shows the sitter – the eminent architect Francis Johnston – amidst references to his profession, namely, the General Post Office, Dublin, which he built 1814-18 and an architectural plan on the table to the right.

Another similarity to the Ritchie portrait is the fact that Johnston, a member of the middle classes, also assumes a pose found in portraiture of the upper ranks, that is, the hand tucked inside the waistcoat. Both the Johnston and Ritchie paintings are interesting examples of how conventions in aristocratic portraiture passed down to portraits of the middle ranks.

The portrait shows Johnston as roughly ten years older than in the bust by Smyth and quite bald.

 

John Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down (1745-1804) (1775)

Thomas Pope-Stevens (fl. 1765-80)

Pope-Stevens, a portrait and landscape painter, was the son of a Dublin portraitist, Thomas Pope. He studied at the Dublin Society’s schools and exhibited in the city for several years. His three brothers, Somerville, Justin and Alexander were also artists.

Image: Thomas Pope-Stevens (fl. 1765-80)
John Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down (1745-1804) (1775) © National Museums Northern Ireland
Thomas Pope-Stevens (fl. 1765-80) John Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down (1745-1804) (1775) © National Museums Northern Ireland

The son of a minor landowner of Scarva, County Down, Reilly was High Sheriff of Counties Down and Armagh in 1776 and 1786 respectively and was also a Commissioner of Accounts in the Revenue service. He served as MP for Blessington, County Wicklow 1779-1800.

Though a modest country gentleman, his rather showy dress points to him being something of a dandy, a trait confirmed by his friend, the Marquess of Downshire, who wrote to him in 1795: ‘If you did not spend so much time, twice a day at your toilette and put your cravat into so elegant a form, you would find time perhaps to give a line more frequently to your faithful and affectionate friend Downshire.’

His demeanour seems to exude confidence and a high sense of self-worth.