These drawings provide insights into the workshop practices of London's leading portrait painter of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Sir Godfrey Kneller. They were made by Kneller's studio manager, Edward Byng, to record the basic appearance of the work being produced. In 1879 the British Museum acquired from Byng's descendants six sketchbooks containing Byng's record drawings, and an album of drawings containing work by Byng, Kneller himself and other highly talented draughtsmen whose identities have not yet been established. Byng's collections comprise an extensive visual archive of the output of Kneller's portrait studio and of the Great Queen Street Academy.
The drawings catalogued here must have come from further sketchbooks or albums that were no longer part of Byng's family collection in 1879, or which had descended to another family member. The Young Man with a Lamb and Portrait of a Seated Woman are both on paper of the same type and size as two of the British Museum sketchbooks, and Young Man with a Lamb is numbered and marked with a small red chalk cross at the bottom edge, consistent with drawings in the British Museum. However, the purpose of these drawings is not entirely clear. They are certainly not sufficiently detailed to have served as copies for engravers. Instead, they must have been used within the studio itself.
J Douglas Stewart, Kneller's most recent biographer, has characterised his studio as: 'a somewhat loose congery of assistants, pupils, and, later, members of the Kneller academy' rather than a highly organised production line with assistants to prepare canvases and specialists contributing the drapery, hands, landscape and so on. It seems, though, that Kneller made great efforts to exploit the commercial opportunity that the demand for his works represented, even to the extent of compromising his own reputation as an artist. For Horace Walpole, Kneller was 'a man lessened by his own reputation as he chose to make it subservient to his fortune.' This required Kneller to be highly organised: in 1693, another portrait painter noted that he could take up to fourteen sitters in a day. At his death, Kneller’s studio contained four hundred unfinished canvases. Having an archive of small-scale drawings of portraits may have helped to impose a sense of order without which the machine may have ground to a halt. Byng’s distinctive drawings may well have provided a visual complement to financial records, or as an aid to clients and studio assistants when choosing a pose or having to make a copy in the absence of the prime version of the portrait. Whatever their precise purpose their number and survival demands further research.
Kneller could not have managed this without administrative help. Byng's involvement with Kneller's studio is documented by July 1694 when he signed a receipt for Kneller. If he had not already completed an apprenticeship under Kneller, Byng may well have joined Kneller's studio in the early 1690s. Byng would have been nineteen years old in 1694, and Kneller had only fairly recently begun his period of domination of the portrait market following the death of Riley in 1691, his knighthood in 1692 along with other marks of the King's favour. It would make sense, then, if Kneller had wished to take on administrative help to support the expansion of his business.
George Vertue joined the Great Queen Street Academy in 1713 and almost immediately sought a long account of Kneller's early life and career which Byng, who was a founding subscriber to the Academy in 1711, supplied. Thereafter Byng occasionally divulged information about Kneller's financial arrangements. He described 'a book wherein he writes the money Received advance for all the Pictures he has done since 1682. which may help towards computing the number of Pictures he has done from the life since then. tho' therein is not mention'd whether heads; half lenghts or whole lenghts.' A few years later, Byng told Vertue that Kneller had lost £20,000 in the South Sea Bubble: this shockt him much', yet Kneller retained an annual income of £2000.
Kneller's trusting relationship with Edward Byng is implicit in Byng's knowledge of his affairs. Kneller declared as much in a bequest to Byng 'who hath for many years faithfully served me and now lives with me' of an annuity of £100, a sum equal to Kneller's annuity to his own brother Andrew. Kneller also left Byng a share in his unfinished stock of paintings if they were subsequently completed and sold by Byng 'or by his directions.' However, Kneller's wife Susannah must have intervened after reading the will, for in two codicils Kneller revised the gifts to Byng in her favour. Firstly, he clarified that Susannah owned 'all my pictures finished and unfinished other than such as now are in and about my house at Whitton... for her own absolute use' and that Byng was not obliged 'to perfect any of the said pictures further or otherwise then he and my said wife can agree concerning the same.' Then for the avoidance of all doubt, Kneller stipulated that if Byng did not 'at all times when and as my dear wife shall think fit be aiding and assisting to my said Wife in the sale and disposall of my pictures to her given,' then Susannah could reduce his annuity permanently to £80.
- The album is British Museum, museum no.1879,0813.9; museum no. ECM 64 is by Kneller himself.
- A miniature portrait of Edward Byng by Bernard Lens III descended to another relation, Elizabeth Wray Green, and was acquired by the British Museum in 1962, museum no.1962,0714.71.
- Edward Croft-Murray and Paul Hulton, Catalogue of British Drawings in the British Museum, London, 1960, vol 1, pp.223-36.
- Robert Raines, quoted J Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, Oxford, 1983, p.82.
- Horace Walpole, ed Ralph Wornum, Anecdotes of Painting in England, London, 1849, vol 2, p.586.
- London, British Library Add Mss 22950, vol 2, f.39v.
- Kneller's portrait of Mrs Wrey/Wray, cited Erna Auerbach and C. Kingsley Adams, Paintings and Sculpture at Hatfield House, London, 1971, p.214. They describe a second receipt signed by Byng, which is dated 15 December 1699.
- Vertue, vol.I, p.28.
- Vertue, vol.I, p.45.
- Vertue, vol.III, p.15.
- London, National Archives, Will of Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, PROB 11/594/269, 27 May 1723.
- London, National Archives, Will of Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, PROB 11/594/269, Codicil, 27 May 1723.
- London, National Archives, Will of Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, PROB 11/594/269, Codicil, 18 July 1723.