In 1686 John Riley painted a full-length image of a woman portrayed in the clothing, setting and actions commensurate with her social position. The painting was acquired by James II and is displayed today in the State Apartments at Windsor Castle. These facts alone would lead us to imagine this as a full-length portrait of a member of the royal family, or at least of a significant Stuart courtier. But the portrait is of a servant, Bridget Holmes, a ‘Necessary Woman’ who had been in royal service from the reign of Charles I and who continued in post through to the reign of William III and Mary II.
Bridget Holmes lived to the age of one hundred. Her longevity and loyalty appear to be commemorated in Riley’s portrait, in which she is positioned in front of a classical urn filled with flowers. A page pulls back an ornamental curtain and she brandishes her broom in his direction, conveying a sense of playfulness. The portrait has all the accoutrements of grandeur without depicting a traditionally ‘grand’ personage. Is this therefore an informal portrait? The artist challenges the viewer’s perceptions, juxtaposing the status of the sitter with the formality of the scale and setting of the work while simultaneously drawing comparison with Dutch genre paintings of the same period.
In many ways, Bridget Holmes is as formal as any State Portrait. If we compare it with a full-length royal portrait, Augusta Duchess of Brunswick with her Son Charles George Augustus by Angelica Kauffman, we can see compositional echoes.
The Duchess has an indirect gaze and stands in front of classical architecture framed by a swag of curtain, and a classical urn includes an inscription celebrating the triumphs in love and war of her absent husband. The painting commemorates the birth of Charles George Augustus, the healthy baby squirming in his mother’s light hold, while concurrently marking the status of the family, their power, wealth and taste. By comparing this full-length work with the portrait of a servant created one hundred years earlier, we can consider the three main players in any portrait: the sitter, the artist and the patron. Sometimes these can overlap, the patron might also be the person portrayed or the artist might also be the sitter, but the balance of influence is not always equal. For instance, it is difficult to imagine Bridget Holmes having any input in the construction of her portrait; instead, it seems plausible that the patron (perhaps James II himself) gave instructions for the artist to follow. This seems particularly evident in such formal portraits. Does it also apply to portraits that appear more relaxed?
The National Portrait Gallery’s George Gordon, Lord Byron after Richard Westall depicts the Romantic poet with his chin resting on his hand, his eyes turned skywards as though caught mid-inspiration.
The artist presents the viewer with an opportunity to imagine that he or she has unprecedented access to Byron’s inner world. The portrait reveals much about the sitter’s persona and the artist’s desire to magnify the concept of the turbulent meditations of the poet. The profile aspect of the head and three-quarter length pose is similarly explored in Thomas Lawrence’s oil sketch of George IV (when Prince Regent)
which was a preparatory study for a full-length portrait commissioned by Lord Stewart (Ambassador to Vienna). The image echoes the dramatic idolisation of the Byron portrait (and indeed the Prince’s dashing curls evoke a Byronic glamour) while also calling to mind the classical profiles used on coins, thereby reinforcing the gravitas of the sitter. It was Lawrence’s skill in creating such seemingly effortless but deeply striking images of the future king that led Benjamin Robert Haydon to describe him as ‘a perfumer to His Majesty’.
If portraitists are indeed ‘perfumers’, they must match their skill to the desires of both the sitter and the patron. Lawrence was satisfying not only the conceit of the Prince Regent but also the desire of Lord Stewart to show his royal allegiance. It is useful to look at the output of a single artist to assess how he adapted his approach to suit the particulars of distinct commissions. The German artist Johan Zoffany, flourished for a while, at the British court. George III and Queen Charlotte of 1771 were two of numerous depictions by Zoffany of the royal family ‘at home’, and the pendant portraits were displayed at the Royal Academy.
Influenced by the innovations of William Hogarth, and with access to the royal residences and, therefore, to masterpieces from the Royal Collection such as Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I and his family, Zoffany was working within an established tradition of royal imagery.
Zoffany’s George III seems astonishingly relaxed. The King sits with his legs wide apart, perhaps to signify his virility and, by inference, the stability of the nation. His crown, sceptre and orb are not in sight and instead his fashionable hat and sword lie on the console table at his side. The pendant portrait of Queen Charlotte is equally engaging. She rests her hands on a cushion on the table, her wrist delicately positioned to display a bracelet sporting a miniature portrait of her husband. The two sitters have broken free of the constraints of a double portrait, and despite the familiar swag curtain, classical pilaster and urn with flowers, the result has a freshness which reminds the viewer that this is the monarch and his consort who both preferred to walk without attendants and to chat with the gardeners in the royal grounds. The extent to which George III and Queen Charlotte were controlling Zoffany is difficult to ascertain. It is worth noting, however, that when the artist was given a commission to be carried out far from the court, he veered from his original brief. Commanded by his royal patrons to depict the treasures of the Florence picture gallery, he created instead a group portrait of his newfound acquaintances, surrounded by the famous artworks. He thereby ignored his orders to describe the wonders of the Grand Tour to the King and Queen who could not travel and instead conveyed his own experience and contacts. This impudent act marked his final royal commission; Zoffany gained no further royal commissions after his return from Italy.
Zoffany left England shortly after the Tribuna of the Uffizi debacle and tried his luck in India.
His portrait of The Auriol and Dashwood Families (on long-term loan to the Holburne Museum) shows the British in Bengal. James Auriol commands the scene, standing in a green jacket on the right. An administrator of the East India Company, he and his sisters, brothers and new brothers-in-law take tea underneath a jackfruit tree, waited on by servants. The servants are ranked differently, from a small pageboy holding the tray to an accountant in dialogue with Mr Auriol. The conversation piece format, showing a group in action within a landscape, brought Zoffany much success in Britain, but when transported to India the quaint English sensibility jars with the exotic surroundings. Of course, the scene is more about power than informality, and the tea party itself indicates the business preoccupations of the protagonist. Despite their smiling confidence, the Auriol and Dashwood families do not seem entirely at home. The flush on the ladies’ faces in particular indicates that English fashions were perhaps not best suited for the heat of the subcontinent.
There is inherent drama in the staged informality of Zoffany’s works. It is unsurprising, therefore, to discover the success of his theatrical portraits. In Venice Preserv’d, Zoffany captures a moment from a popular 1762 production of Thomas Otway’s play, with David Garrick enacting Jaffier on the brink of killing his wife, Belvidera. The Venetian setting appears two-dimensional, consistent with the painted stage set. Perhaps because of the artifice of the play, or simply due to the professionalism of the sitters, the painting is the most natural of any of Zoffany’s works. Through evocative lighting and the elegant animation of the actors’ poses, the artist transports the viewer to the mid eighteenth century where he or she becomes an audience member witnessing the tragedy of a man torn between love of his wife and loyalty to his best friend. For all this, the portrait cannot be defined as informal. A commissioned work, perfected in the artist’s studio, can create the illusion of spontaneity, but the act of turning perceptions of people into paint consistently results in formality.
Jennifer Scott has been Director of the Holburne Museum, Bath since 2014. She was Curator of Paintings at Royal Collection Trust for over ten years, and has published and lectured extensively on royal portraiture and on Dutch and Flemish paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.