This is a fine example of the work of one of the period's most brilliant yet enigmatic portrait artists, who was the foremost exponent of the plumbago drawing. As C.F. Bell and Rachel Poole observed in 1926, 'as specimens of virtuosity in handling a black-lead point with amazing sensitiveness and dexterity, Forster's miniatures have never been surpassed.'
'Plumbago' or graphite drawing developed within the Dutch print trade for drawings made for engraving and was introduced into England at the Restoration. The discovery of plumbago in Cumberland in the third quarter of the century encouraged its use by artists, including David Loggan and Robert White, who commonly made small monochrome portraits for engravings. With its potential for lustrous and tonal effects, the plumbago portrait became a popular form of intimate portraiture at a time when the practice of miniature watercolour was at a low ebb following the death of major exponents such as Samuel Cooper and John Hoskins. Although several of Forster's sitters were linked with James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde many of his clients were private individuals rather than public officials. Forster's portraits of women are frequently less sharp and lifelike than the men, and it may be that he relied less on ad vivum sittings; equally, unsigned examples may be the work of his close imitator Charles Forster (active 1709-17). Indeed, Bell and Poole attributed the downfall of the plumbago portrait to the habit of draughtsmen who relied on paintings rather then ad vivum study, these include portraits of Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough by the plumbago portraitist Charles Forster which are taken from prints after Kneller.
Despite his brilliance, the most basic questions about Forster's identity are still unresolved. He was certainly working as early as 1690, the date of his portrait of Dorothy Yates. Vertue noted that a self-portrait by 'Foster' aged thirty-one was dated 1708, from which it is assumed that Forster was born in 1676 or 7; if so, Forster was something of a prodigy at the outset of his working life. A much earlier birth date, of around 1660, is to be inferred from an engraving of a self portrait of 'T.Foster.1689 from a Pencil Drawing by himself' which was published in 1803 and which depicts a man in his late twenties or early thirties working in Forster's style. However, Basil Long called this 'an alleged self-portrait' and it was rejected entirely by Bell and Poole. Long and Edward Croft-Murray have both suggested that Charles Forster, who worked in Forster's style, was his son; if this was so (as seems likely), a birth date in the later 1670s is unrealistic. A T Forster drew an elevation of the Banqueting House which is now at Yale and may indicate that he had an architectural training. Evidently Forster enjoyed some reputation, for 'Mr.Wooton, by the famous Forster, in black lead' was listed in a catalogue of the Countess of Gainsborough's limnings in 1740, yet even this reference suggests some lack of familiarity with the artist.
- CF Bell and Rachel Poole, 'English Seventeenth-Century Portrait Drawings in Oxford Collections: Part II, Walpole Society, 1925-6, vol 14, p.73.
- John Murdoch, Seventeenth-century English Miniatures in the Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1997, p.345.
- CF Bell and Rachel Poole, 'English Seventeenth-Century Portrait Drawings in Oxford Collections: Part II, Walpole Society, 1925-6, vol 14, p.79; now Ashmolean see David Blayney Brown, Catalogue of the collection of drawings in the Ashmolean Museum: The Earlier British Drawings, Oxford, 1982, nos.127-8.
- CF Bell and Rachel Poole, 'English Seventeenth-Century Portrait Drawings in Oxford Collections: Part II, Walpole Society, 1925-6, vol 14.
- Vertue, vol.IV, p.114.
- British Museum, museum no.1938,1222.22. The drawing was owned by the landscape painter George Walker who appears to have made the engraving in 1797.
- Basil Long, British Miniatures, London, 1929, p.159; CF Bell and Rachel Poole, 'English Seventeenth-Century Portrait Drawings in Oxford Collections: Part II, Walpole Society, 1925-6, vol 14, p.75. The original drawing is at the Ashmolean Museum but it is undated. See David Blayney Brown, Catalogue of the collection of drawings in the Ashmolean Museum: The Earlier British Drawings, Oxford, 1982, no.129.
- Basil Long, British Miniatures, London, 1929, p.158; Edward Croft-Murray and Paul Hulton, Catalogue of British Drawings: XVI & XVII Centuries, London, 1960, vol 1, p.320.
- Yale Center for British Art, museum no.B1975.2.378.
- 22 February 1740, lot 5 Lugt 495.