The British Portrait from Hogarth to Hockney – Vivien Heffernan

Well today’s talk started with the AGM, a mercifully brief and efficient meeting and then we were off into the talk.  With regards to the AGM it’s worth me noting how much I enjoy being part of this society and appreciate all the work that the committee do to achieve it.
Anyway the talk, maybe because the subject was so large or the talk time was shorter than usual this talk seemed “less” than others, nonetheless it was still interesting.  Through a range of portraits  that neither started with Hogarth nor ended with Hockney we looked at the progression of the mainstream British portrait, although not everyone was British.

To see the paintings better click on them. Each link will take you to a larger picture and a far more detailed discussion of the painter and painting.
Initially we discussed the honesty of a portrait. Portraits were usually commissioned by the wealthy and the powerful and as we have no photographic sources we have to rely on the fact that certain licences may have been taken.  The more powerful the sitter the more likely they dictate the reality of the image.  As the power shifts towards the fame of the painter they can insist on their own interpretation of the sitter.
Gerlach Flicke 1554
We started with the first known British self portrait in oil, 1554 by Gerlach Flicke featuring himself and Strangwish. It was done in prison, and details a friendship between the two men. Flicke was a portraitist but was in prison for his support of the Wyatt rebellion. Strangwish was a gentleman privateer and had stepped over the line. The most striking thing about the portrait is the size, at 11cm by 8cm it’s tiny. The second interesting fact is that the writing over the German, Flicke is in Latin, the writing above Strangwish is English, possibly suggesting a hierarchy of language and importance.
Hogarth 1745
Moving on to Hogarth we are in full English ascendency in fact Hogarth was almost xenophobic in his love of Britain. In his self portrait we see his books are by  Shakespeare, Swift and Milton. His dog features heavily being in the foreground and almost the same size.  We also see his line of beauty and grace depicted on a palette, this sweeping line is apparent throughout all his portraits. 

Coram by Hogarth 1740 

Onto his portrait of Captain Coran we again see the superfluous sweeping line in the line of his collar. Coran was a  great figure in British society and Hogarth has raised him above the viewer giving him greater presence over us. Hogarth writes in English rather than latin in the picture again underlining his love of all thing English. There is always humour in Hogarth, this time it is in the grand majestic setting, the seal of office, the classical columns, the throne like arrangement and sitting magnificently in the middle is a rather scruffy hap hazard man. It is not mocking him rather it suggests that the honest man is to be upheld not airbrushed. 
His third portrait was well known to me as the smiling cat but better known as the Graham Children.
Graham Children by Hogarth 1742
There are so many things to see in this paining but the one I like focusses on the cat.  The boy is smiling up at the goldfinch no doubt believing it is his playing that is making the bird cheep but we can see that in fact it’s the cat above.  The boy and the cat also have the same expression. But the last joke that Hogarth wants to make is to make us see what is going to happen next. The latch on the birdcage is undone, any second now the cat will pounce, the bird will flees and this perfect scene will descend into chaos. Incidentally the line of beauty in this portrait is depicted in the white apron pulled up and swept over the blue girl’s arm; a very deliberate arrangement.

Vivien was at pains to point out that portrait artists love to tell to stories about the sitters in the scene, painting are full of clues and allegories. You will always learn more about the sitter by looking in the background and the objects placed around them.

Garrick by Gainsborough 1770
Garrick by Reynolds 1760

Next we compared Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, Reynolds was the Court painter and was in such demand that he normally just did the face with the rest of his workshop finishing his work.. He’s also considered by some to not be as good as Gainsborough, he struggled to capture a likeness and the paint that he used often cracked and often has to be conserved, Vivien was saying that an art restorer she knew has never had to restore a Gainsborough but regularly restores Reynolds. The two following paintings are of the same man David Garrick, Gainsborough’s portrait 1770 is a very intimate friendly confiding picture. Reynolds painting, 1760 is of a far wider scope and as we can see from the two pieces the face isn’t quite the same. I know who I’d choose to paint me!
Rossetti, 1847
Annie Miller as Helen of Troy, Rossetti, 1863

Lady Agnew by Singer Sargent, 1892
Jumping forward we get to Gabriel Dante Rossetti and his self portrait in 1847. Rossetti wasn’t considered to be a great draughtsman so got around this by pretty much filing up his canvas with the sitter. In his own image he leaves the background blank, in the one of Annie Miller her gorgeous textures fill the space. The romanticism of the mid eighteenth century was rampant amongst the Pre Raphaelites and have a look at the beauty of Lady Agnew by Singer Sargent, 1892  From the look of her she rather liked Sargent, it’s a very louche portrait with the sitter off centre and very relaxed.  Have a look at her skin through her muslin sleeve, so translucent.
Whistler’s Mother, 1871
From the pure romances we get to Whistler and his mother in 1871.  This painting in its simple palette of colours and angles makes us remember that photography was on the rise.  Artists were also beginning to show portraits that told of everyday life. Now artists were become more common as more people hung art in their homes. 

Ennui, Sickert, 1914
Sickert has done a lovely painting of a married couple called Ennui. Everything about the picture suggests how fed up the wife is of her life and how complacent the husband is about his. Clearly this wasn’t a commission but an artist beginning to paint to sell to whoever would buy his work.  Art was becoming more commercial.

We are also starting to see the rise of female artists, Laura Knight has done this wonderful portrait and self portrait in 1913. She has her back to us, her sitter has her back to us and is naked and then the painting itself also shows the back.  Three women all with their backs to the viewer. I love this picture, it’s so “so what!” but look how she draws attention to her tiny half profiled face. Despite it taking up very little space on the canvas we notice it instantly because it is set against white space and pops out. Just as a nice little touch she bought that cardigan at Penzance market.
Laura Knight, 1913
And then portraits can be scorching.  This is Stanley Spencer’s portrait of his wife and daughter.  You won’t be surprised to discover that he painted this after he left them to set up house with a woman that he thought he loved and loved him too but in turn turned out to be a lesbian only after his money. It’s hard to tell who is more hurt and let down, the family or the dolls.  More pain shows through Hockney’s portrait of  The Clarks and Percy (Ozzie Clark and Celia Birtwell) in 1970having just wed. Hockney was their best man, clearly he could see what they couldn’t and they were divorced by the end of the year. Incidentally if Ozzie Clark’s feet look awkward its because Hockney couldn’t do feet so he hid them in the shag pile.
Hilda by Spencer, 1937

The Clarks and Percy by Hockney, 1970
From one Hodgkin to another. The first is by Howard Hodgkin and is a picture of Patrick in Italy, 1993. Doesn’t he look, happy? Er?  The second is a picture of Dorothy Hodgkin by Maggi Hambling 1985. A brilliant study of a brilliant scientist and look how busy, she has four arms.
Dorothy Hodgkin by Maggi Hambling, 1985

Patrick in Italy, Hodgkin, 1993
 Finally we come full circle to commission portraits. This time we have one of the UK’s most famous and respected artists Lucien Freud painting the Queen, the nation’s pre-eminent figure. So what happens now; is it about the power of the sitter or the power of the artist? There were six years of negotiation before this portrait occurred, even more telling was that the Queen allowed 22 sittings when she normally only gives three.  The resulting portrait was hated by many but I imagine the Queen rather liked it. She has no need of false flattery and strikes me as a rather down to earth lady. Despite the crown.
The Queen by Freud, 2001
So another whistle stop summation. To get a real flavour for the talks find your local NADFAS and enrol. 
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