This sensitively handled oil is the earliest recorded self-portrait by John Hamilton Mortimer, executed circa 1758, shortly after Mortimer had entered the studio of Thomas Hudson. It was in Hudson’s studio that Mortimer met Joseph Wright of Derby, with whom he had a life-long friendship and working relationship. Previously unpublished, this painting sheds significant light on Mortimer’s working practices and on the activities of young artists in the 1750s, the decade before the foundation of the Royal Academy. Its rediscovery also underlines what a compelling and intelligent painter Mortimer was, raising significant questions about his relationship with Wright of Derby. The work is also unfinished offering valuable insights into the working methods of British painters at a transitional moment in the emergence of an indigenous school of art.
John Hamilton Mortimer was born in Eastbourne, Sussex the fifth and youngest child of Thomas Mortimer, a mill owner and customs officer. The landscape painter and diarist, Joseph Farington recorded that Mortimer: ‘he began to draw when very young.’ In 1756 or 1757 Mortimer's father paid £100 for him to work in the studio of Thomas Hudson. By the 1750s an artistic system had emerged in Britain which meant drawing from the antique and life model were largely taught in a series of private organisations – including the St Martin’s Lane Academy and Shipley’s drawing academy – whilst the practical role of a painter was learnt in the atelier of an established master. In Hudson’s studio, we know, Mortimer would have been taught to draw, initially by copying old master drawings or prints from Hudson’s own collection. Hudson would also have instructed Mortimer in the use of oil paint, a fact which is significant when considering the confident execution of the present boldly handled work.
Mortimer’s earliest biographers tell us that he grew tired of Hudson’s studio regime and left after a year. Hudson’s most famous student, Joshua Reynolds, similarly rebelled over the repetitive nature of Hudson’s teaching method. Mortimer worked instead with the painter and political radical, Robert Edge Pine.
We have a sense of Mortimer’s powers as a draughtsman at this period from a series of highly finished drawings after sculptures and life-drawings preserved in the collection of the Society of Arts. Two of the life drawings are signed and dated 1758 and 1759, they were probably made at the St Martin’s Lane Academy. Mortimer was awarded a premium by the Society of Arts for the second drawing, the Minutes recording ‘Drawings of Human Figures from living Models at Academy of Artists in St. Martin’s Lane, in Chalks, by Young Men under 24 years to divide 30 Guineas… 1759 John Mortimer pupil of Mr Pine, 2nd share.’ At the same time Mortimer was drawing from casts. An article in The Monthly Magazine noted:
‘whilst he was here [with Hudson], and for a considerable time afterwards, he attended the Duke of Richmond’s Gallery, which was, indeed, his school, and where his assiduity, his exertions, and his opening powers were so much noticed by Cipriani, and the late Mr Moser, that they represented him so favourably to the illustrious nobleman… that he wished very much to have retained him in his house.’
Mortimer did not become the ‘house’ painter to Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, but it is notable that his ‘opening powers’ were recognised by contemporaries.
A series of nine black and white chalk character studies preserved in the Sir John Soane’s Museum date from roughly 1758. Showing different heads observed from oblique angles, the studies show the influence of Giovanni-Battista Piazzetta and the Irish portraitist Thomas Frye, whose own head studies published as mezzotints were extremely popular. The drawings betray Mortimer’s interest in certain viewpoints and physiognomic stylisations. For example, he seems to have been attracted to showing figures from below; many of the sitters are shown with distinctive flared nostrils, upturned noses and small, sharply drawn mouths, with heavily shadowed lower-lips.
These features are all apparent in Mortimer’s earliest self-portrait. A remarkably confident work made at the beginning of his training, the present portrait combines several important themes which would be consistent features of his career.
The first is self-portraiture itself. Mortimer, like his older friend Joseph Wright of Derby, was fascinated by self-portraiture. Wright produced numerous images of himself over his career beginning with a romantic depiction in Van Dyck costume now in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Possibly painted when Wright was working in Hudson’s studio for the second time, it is similar in approach and handling to our self-portrait by Mortimer. The sitter in our portrait is instantly recognisable as Mortimer from his later self-portraits. Four years after beginning the present study, he produced another self-portrait, which he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762. John Sunderland identified the work with a painting formerly in the collection of Mortimer’s descendants which is now known only from a poor quality black and white photograph. It is notable that his first exhibited work, at the first exhibition of living British art in London, was a self-portrait. Like Wright, Mortimer continued to produce self-portraits throughout his career. In the mid-1760s Mortimer painted a conversation piece of himself, his father, Thomas and brother Charles Smith now in the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. Mortimer is the seated figure in the foreground of the Yale conversation piece, his features – the retroussé nose, the short, dark hair, thick bottom lip and slight dimple in the chin – are the same, but older than in our portrait.
The second is artistic education. Again, like Wright, Mortimer was clearly fascinated by the process of learning to paint and draw and like Wright he produced a series of celebrated images of artists at work. The most instructive is a famous self-portrait of himself seated at a drawing board with a student, presumably correcting the student’s drawing of the casts laid on the table in front of them. The painting is known in two versions, in the second, now in the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Mortimer included the sculptor Joseph Wilton, who had supervised his own time drawing in the Duke of Richmond’s academy. In 1769 Mortimer was appointed a director of the Maiden Lane Academy by the Society of Artists and was required to set the life model along with Ozias Humphry, Robert Edge Pine, George Stubbs, Joseph Wright and Johan Zoffany. According to the Minutes of the Society of Artists, Mortimer was required: ‘to wait upon Dr [William] Hunter and… desire the favour of him to dissect a human figure for the use of the Academy.’
This newly discovered self-portrait is therefore particularly important as it combines these two ideas, showing, as it does, Mortimer at work. Although unfinished, Mortimer depicts himself holding a drawing board, presumably in the process of making a study with a porte crayon. Mortimer’s upturned eyes and concentrated expression possibly suggests that he was attempting to depict himself in the process of drawing a sculpture or cast, given the date, probably at the Duke of Richmond’s Sculpture Gallery. That Mortimer painted this study is also instructive. Given that in 1758 Mortimer was still apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, he would naturally be learning to handle oil. The blond ground, use of liquid brown paint to block in the costume and the careful build-up of colour, all accords with Hudson’s own technique. So too does the format, Mortimer has shown himself in a feigned oval, similar to many of Hudson’s most successful portraits of the period and a format Mortimer himself adopts in his portraiture of the 1760s.
This unfinished painting was only recently rediscovered, because Mortimer seemingly reused the canvas. The painting has traditionally said to have come from Hopton Hall in Derbyshire and of depicting Thomas Haden. It is first definitely recorded at Radburne Hall in Derbyshire in the collection of Henry Chandos-Pole-Gell. Radburne Hall is notable as the location of one of Mortimer’s most ambitious projects. With Joseph Wright of Derby, Mortimer was commissioned by Edward Sacheverell Pole to decorate the Saloon. Wright supplied portraits of Pole, a Colonel in the 23rd Foot of Royal Welsh Fusiliers, his wife, and also to provide four overdoor panels of candlelight subjects. Mortimer was commissioned to complete two large scenes from classical antiquity in the grand manner, representing the Blind Belisarius and Caius Marius on the Ruins of Carthage, as well as an Allegory of the Arts as a fifth overdoor. Mortimer was paid 100 guineas each for the Belisarius and the Caius Marius and 50 guineas for the overdoor.
The identification of the portrait as Thomas Haden, rather than Mortimer, rested on its similarity to a drawing apparently showing the same sitter by Joseph Wright of Derby. The drawing, also at Radburne Hall, shows a young boy, with similar features to Mortimer – retroussé nose, full-lips, and slight dimple in the chin – but the pose is slightly different, Wright has shown the sitter leaning on his left hand. It was the pose which led to Nicholson identifying the drawing as a study for Wright’s painting of Edwin (from Dr Beattie’s Minstrel) and therefore Thomas Haden. But the boy in the drawing at Radburne hall bears no resemblance to the finished painting of Edwin. The drawing is therefore likely to show not Haden, but Mortimer. This idea is given strength by the fact that the portrait drawing has long been mounted with a drawing by Mortimer. The Mortimer shows a study after Moreelse’s Lady as Shepherdess and is dated to Sunderland to 1775-1778. The figure is copied from a painting that was in the collection of Mortimer’s great friend and patron, Dr Benjamin Bates. The Mortimer drawing was therefore executed whilst he was working at Radburne and seems likely to have been acquired by Edward Sacheverell Pole.
This does raise the question of why two portrait studies of Mortimer, apparently made twenty years earlier, stayed at Radburne. In the case of our self-portrait, it is clear Mortimer was reusing an old canvas. Mortimer painted on the verso a copy of Joshua Reynolds’s 1774 self-portrait. The reason for Mortimer’s copy is unclear. Mortimer admired Reynolds greatly, he dedicated a series of fifteen etchings to Reynolds in 1778 and was highly conscious of The Discourses. Indeed, when he exhibited the Radburne Belisarius at the Society of Artists in 1772, Mortimer noted in the Candid Observations which he penned anonymously with Thomas Jones: ‘It appears evident here, the Painter has carefully read Sir Joshua Reynolds’s last lecture, and has perhaps too closely adhered to the Principles of the Bolognian School.’
Precisely why Mortimer painted a copy of Reynolds’s self-portrait is unclear, but it is almost certainly the route of the muddle over provenance. Philip Gell, whose property descended through his only daughter, Isabella, to the Chandos-Pole family of Radburne Hall, was painted by Reynolds. Gell’s full-length portrait by Reynolds is preserved at Radburne and Reynolds’s sitters’ books record several appointments with Gell between 1768 and 1772 perhaps fuelling the idea that Mortimer’s self-portrait had once been at Hopton. But without any definitive evidence to the contrary, it seems far more likely that the painting was acquired by Edward Sacheverell Pole. More recently the present painting passed, with other Gell pictures from Hopton, to Colonel John Chandos-Pole of Newnham Hall, Northamptonshire. But this again, does not confirm a Gell provenance, as numerous Chandos-Pole paintings were also part of the same collection.
John Hamilton Mortimer is one of the most innovative and impressive history painters of the mid-eighteenth century. In this precautious early self-portrait, Mortimer demonstrates his ability as a painter. A powerful, unfinished work, the portrait looks ahead to Mortimer’s great series of self-portraits. Its provenance also ties the portrait to one of Mortimer’s most important projects and to his long standing friend, Joseph Wright of Derby shedding important light on their work together.
- Eds. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre, The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, 1979, vol.III, p.893.
- For Reynolds’s work in Hudson’s studio see Mark Hallett, Reynolds Portraiture in Action, New Haven and London, 2014, pp.36-38.
- John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986, cat. no’s 1,2,3 and 6,7.
- John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986,p.121.
- Quoted in John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986,p.7.
- This self-portrait has been variously dated to 1751 and 1757. Judy Egerton followed David Fraser in suggesting the earlier dating, although Nicholson’s dating to Wright’s second period in Hudson’s studio is equally as plausible. See Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat. London (Tate Gallery), 1990, p.34.
- John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986, cat. no.7.
- John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986, cat. no’s, 48 & 49.
- John Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol.LII, 1986, cat.no’s 32a and 32.
- Quoted in Matthew Hargraves, Candidates for Fame: The Society of Artists of Great Britain 1760-1791, New Haven and London, 2005, p.102.
- On the basis of a partial label on the stretcher which read: ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds/ painted by himself/ Said to have been / painted during/ a visit [paper torn] opton.’
- Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, New Haven and London, 1968, vol. I, pp.62-63.
- See Benedict Nicolson, John Hamilton Mortimer ARA 1740-1779, exh. cat., Eastbourne and London (Towner Art Gallery and Kenwood), 1968, cat. no. 32, p.27.
- Benedict Nicolson, John Hamilton Mortimer ARA 1740-1779, exh. cat., Eastbourne and London (Towner Art Gallery and Kenwood), 1968, cat. no.32, p.27.
- David Manning, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, p. 48, no. 13c.
- Candid Observations on the Principal Performances Now Exhibiting at the New Room of the Society of Artists, Near Exeter-Change, Intended as a Vade Mecum to that Exhibition, 1772, p.17.
- David Manning, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, no. 713, p.213.
- Most of the contents of Newnham Hall was sold at Christie’s, 11 July 1994, but the present painting was not included. Amongst the contents of the house were several portraits of Colonel John Chandos-Pole and his family attributed to Wright of Derby, see for example lots.214 and 216.