Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pastel on buff coloured paper  
  • 9 ⅝ × 7 11/16 inches · 245 × 195 mm
  • Inscribed by Hamilton on the backboard:
    'Nathaniel Marchant’ Esqr
    With the original Roman carved frame
    Drawn in c.1788

Collections

  • Possibly John Penn (1760-1834); [1]
  • Coral Samuel (1927-2023);
  • Bonhams, 10th April 2024, lot. 186;
  • Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd. 

Exhibitions

  • Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists Before 1800, online version, cat. no. J.375.1693.

This penetrating pastel portrait was made by Hugh Douglas Hamilton on the eve of Nathaniel Marchant’s departure from Rome in 1788. Marchant was the most celebrated British gem engraver of his generation, producing hugely refined essays in modern neo-classicism on a miniature scale; lionised by contemporaries, Marchant continues to be regarded as one of the preeminent post-classical designers in the medium. This masterful portrait is amongst a group of Hamilton’s finest, which he made of his intimate friends and associates in Rome. Marchant shared lodgings in Rome with the Irish painter Henry Tresham who features in Hamilton’s startling conversation piece with Antonio Canova (Victoria & Albery Museum, London). Hamilton’s study of Canova in profile, recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, shares some of the intimacy and immediacy of the present work. Hamilton’s pastel was conceived as an oval and until recently housed in its original carved, giltwood frame with an oval slip. Unframing the pastel, for the first time since it was completed, revealed not only the margins of the sheet offering compelling evidence of Hamilton’s technique, but the unusual method he used to prevent the unfixed pastel surface from coming into contact with the glazing. As such, this remarkable work offers unprecedented evidence for the way in which pastel as medium was understood and protected in the eighteenth century.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton
Portrait of Antonio Canova
Pastel over traces of graphite
9 13/16 × 8 ⅛ inches; 249 × 206 mm
Drawn 1787
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2024.14

Hugh Douglas Hamilton
Antonio Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham and a plaster model for Cupid and Psyche
Pastel
16 ½ x 23 inches; 420 x 584 mm
Drawn in 1788-1791
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hugh Douglas Hamilton arrived in Rome in 1782, he was 43 and had already forged successful careers in his native Dublin and London. To date, Hamilton specialised in intimate pastel portraits, but in Italy he transformed his approach, pushing the boundaries of the medium by making a succession of ambitious large-scale portraits. Hamilton travelled to Italy with his wife and daughter and rapidly established a thriving practice. On 3rd March 1783 John Ramsay saw in Hamilton’s studio the portraits of Christopher Norton, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Abbé Grant and Philip Livingston amongst others.[2] At the same time Hamilton was producing a sequence of portraits of members of the exiled Stuart Court, including depictions of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, illegitimate daughter Charlotte and brother, Cardinal York. Hamilton moved to Florence for a number of years in 1783 returning to Rome in January 1786. The present exquisitely worked portrait most likely dates from Hamilton’s second residence in the city. During Hamilton’s second stay in Rome he is recorded living in the Casa Guarnieri, a popular lodging for foreign artists close to Santa Trinità dei Monti. Nathaniel Marchant was by then, close by, living on Strada Felice in a palazzo belonging to Francesco Piranesi.

Nathaniel Marchant trained in London, where he won several premiums offered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce for his reproductions in intaglio of ancient statues from the duke of Richmond’s gallery. Marchant’s skill was recognised by major collectors of engraved gems, particularly George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough who sponsored his trip to Italy. Marchant set out for the Continent in 1772 arriving in Rome in January 1773. In Rome Marchant largely concentrated on studying, copying and reproducing the city’s antiquities in intaglio. Marchant found in Rome a ready market for his work, both amongst the resident Italian elite and visiting Grand Tourists. Marchant gained a reputation for his ability to cut outstanding likenesses of living sitters gaining a series of commissions from distinguished patrons, including Pope Pius VI, two successive Venetian ambassadors, Girolamo Zulian and Andrea Memmo; Prince Abbondio Rezzonico, the Senator of Rome, the Duke of Ceri, and Prince Marc Antonio IV Borghese.

Marchant’s continued success in Rome corresponded - and undoubtedly contributed - to a renewed focus amongst British travellers on collecting engraved gems. A typical tourist, such as Thomas Coke of Holkham, is recorded by the leading British dealer, Thomas Jenkins, acquiring antique gems, including a fine sardonyx of Minerva, still at Holkham, whilst commissioning from Marchant a copy of the Vatican Cleopatra, the same sculpture that was included in Coke’s full-length portrait by Pompeo Batoni. The elegance of Marchant’s line appealed to a particularly sophisticated group of patrons; he worked for the pioneering collectors Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Colonel John Campbell, first Lord Cawdor and cut a portrait Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton for her husband, the diplomat, collector and antiquarian, Sir William Hamilton.

From this list, it is clear, that Marchant and Hamilton were working in the same circles for the same patrons. Hamilton made celebrated portraits of the 4th Earl of Bristol and produced his extraordinary depiction of Antonio Canova and Henry Tresham admiring Canova’s Cupid and Psyche for the sculpture’s patron, John Campbell, first Lord Cawdor. Hamilton remained on friendly terms with Canova, corresponding with him long after he returned from Italy. In a letter dated Dublin 1802 Hamilton reports to Canova on a trip to London giving news of Marchant: ‘il quale ha un impiego considerevole nelle gemme e sempre fa delle belle cose nel suo genere.’[3]

It seems likely that this pastel was made at the same moment Hamilton was working on his portrait of Canova and Tresham, this would have been in 1788 on the eve of Marchant’s departure back to London. The pastel is worked directly on a heavy piece of buff-coloured paper, identical to the paper Hamilton uses in his unfinished portrait of Canova, recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty Canova gives a sense of how Hamilton worked, laying in the design in black chalk directly on the paper, before working in the flesh tones on the face; Hamilton then uses sharpened pastels to refine and define individual features, pencilling in eyes, nose, mouth, lashes and eyebrows. In the Getty Canova the white of the stock has only been lightly applied, in the more finished portrait of Marchant it is brought to greater finish, although the outline of the under-drawing is still visible. In the Getty Canova the smudged tonal background has only just been lightly begun, in the portrait of Marchant it is has been carefully completed, comprising a field of richly worked browns and blacks, ideally suited to compliment the blue of Marchant’s coat. Hamilton’s portrait of the gregarious young Canova is in stark contrast to his incisive depiction of Marchant; respected for his integrity, intelligence and taste, Marchant is shown steadily regarding the viewer through piercing blue eyes.

Marchant’s portrait was designed to be covered by a gilt-oval slip, unframing the pastel revealed fascinating insights into its construction. Hamilton’s earlier Roman pastels were made on blue paper, for example his portrait of the dealer and art agent Christopher Norton (Private Collection, New York). The buff paper has not been stretched on canvas, but nailed directly onto the backboard. Rather than using a slip or construction in the frame to preserve the surface of the pastel from the glass, Hamilton has attached four pieces of cork directly to the corners of the paper to provide a suitable barrier. In the margins, intended to be covered by the slip and frame, Hamilton has left the paper bare with a few test passages of unblended pastel. This unit – backboard with attached paper – was then housed in the giltwood frame, the rebates and glass papered to protect the surface of the paper. Hamilton then applied two lengths of cotton ribbon across the backboard with sealing wax to prevent the pastel from being opened and to indicate if it had been tampered with. One length of ribbon and the four areas of wax survive. As far as I am aware, this is a previously unrecorded system for ensuring an eighteenth-century pastel was left intact.

This pastel portrait was unknown to scholarship until its recent appearance at auction. The image was known in an oil version, now in the collection of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Precisely when Soane acquired the portrait is unclear, but it may have come through his friend John Flaxman. Flaxman was an intimate friend in Rome of both Marchant and Hamilton and would go on to be one of Marchant’s executors, producing his monument for the church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire. The monument includes depictions of four of Marchant’s most celebrated intaglios and a long précis of his life, which concludes: ‘he was beloved for his social qualities and benevolence and esteemed for his uniform support of a character of strict integrity.’ Stoke Poges was the historic home of John Penn, Marchant’s other executor who was specifically left his portrait. If is possible that both executors acquired iterations of the same portrait.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton
Portrait of Nathaniel Marchant
Oil on wood
9 ½ x 7 ½ inches; 242 x 190 mm
After 1788
©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Art UK

This portrait is a remarkable testament to the intimate creative communities which existed in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century: Hamilton and Marchant lived on the same street, moved in the same creative circles and shared patrons. Hamilton produced some of his most humane and insightful works whilst in Rome and this rediscovered portrait of the preeminent gem engraver of his generation surely ranks as one of his finest. 

Hugh Douglas Hamilton
Christopher Norton
Pastel
10 ½ x 9 inches; 266 x 228 mm
Drawn 1782
Private collection, New York, formerly with Lowell Libson Ltd.

References

  1. Marchant left his portrait to his principal executor, the writer John Penn. This has been associated with the oil copy of this pastel in the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, but it might be the present portrait which is of higher quality. See Gertrud Seidmann and Robert L. Wilkins, ‘Nathaniel Marchant, Gem Engraver 1739-1816’, The Walpole Society, 1987, vol.53, pp.32-33, n.69 and p.37, n.167. 
  2. John Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, New Haven and London, 1997, p.451. 
  3. Gertrud Seidmann and Robert L. Wilkins, ‘Nathaniel Marchant, Gem Engraver 1739-1816’, The Walpole Society, 1987, vol.53, p.35, no.125. See also Fintan Cullen, ‘Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s Letters to Canova’, Irish Arts Review, Summer 1984, vol.I, no.2, p.32.