THE PROPERTY OF NICHOLAS, THE12TH LORD MONSON, AND HIS TWO BROTHERS.
Monson was accompanied on his trip by his cousin Lewis Thomas Watson, the son of Lord Sondes. Dr John Moore, physician to the Duke of Hamilton, who was also on route to Italy in the company of his master, met them in Geneva in 1772. The somewhat serious minded Scot, who would later become famous for his literary sketches on the manners of European societies, commented in a letter of October that year that the two young men ‘seem naturally of a good character’, though he clearly disapproved of their rather carefree attitude, lamenting that ‘their time is passed in complete idleness’, and that they spent their days ‘sauntering and gaming when they can get anyone to play with them’1 This impression of an amiable character, and also some of these bad habits, seem to have persisted, for George Selwyn wrote of him three years later in December 1775, that ‘...young Lord Monson shows a strong propensity [to gamble] and has been initiated. He has a very pretty figure, and address, and is extremely well spoken of, but I do not apprehend can have great opulence’.2 By this date Monson had already been in Italy for nearly two years; he is recorded as attending a dinner given by Horace Mann in Florence in March 1774, and visited Venice on the 11 May, both times in the company of the French print dealer J.B. Durade. On the 23 July, he learnt of his father’s death and his succession to his Barony. After a brief sojourn in Vienna, Monson returned to Rome, where he sat for this portrait. While in Rome he met his future brother-in-law, Henry Peirse (1754–1824), who also sat to Batoni the following year for his own portrait, today in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome.3 Together the three young men travelled to Naples with Lord George Cavendish, arriving there by the 10 January 1775. Monson’s recently acquired gambling habits followed him: by March it is recorded that, together with Cavendish and Lord Tynley, he had lost above two thousand pounds at cards, mostly to the King of Naples. Cutting his losses, Monson seems to have returned speedily back to Florence by the end of the month. It is not entirely clear when Monson returned to native soil, but this was certainly before the 18 July 1777, when he married Lady Elizabeth Capell, daughter of William 4th Earl of Essex and his wife Frances, daughter of Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams. They had two daughters and a son, John George (1785–1809) who would duly succeed his father as 4th Baron in 1806. The same year saw the marriage of his erstwhile travelling companion Henry Peirse to his sister Charlotte Grace. George Selwyn’s shrewd observation of Monson’s pleasant character but lack of funds seems to be borne out by the fact that he seems to have made very few purchases of works of art while on the Grand Tour. He did, however, commission from George Romney in 1778 a magnificent full–length of his wife Elizabeth, no doubt to commemorate their marriage the previous year (lot 51 in this sale).4 The two elegant full lengths must have complemented each other beautifully and made a very handsome impression when they were hung together at Burton Hall.
By far the most significant of Monson’s commissions was this resplendent full length by Batoni. The young English lord is shown wearing grey Van Dyck costume with an ermine-trimmed scarlet cloak. In his choice of dress, as well as the compositional device of the setting of a columned portico, it is possible that Monson may have seen Batoni’s very slightly earlier portrait of Thomas William Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, painted in 1773–74 and still today at Holkham in Norfolk (fig. 1), in which the sitter is similarly attired and also holds his hat, while his loyal dog sits at his feet.5 Indeed so similar are these magnificent costumes, down to the splendidly intricate lace collar, the ostrich feather plumed hat and the Stuart ‘rose’ shoe buckles, that it is tempting to speculate they are the same. The classical temple which can be seen in the far distance in the landscape background is the famous Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli. This was a not an infrequent motif in Batoni’s portraits, and can be found, for example, in his portrait of Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham of 1758–59 today in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (fig. 2).6 The imposing classical statue beside him is not, as Steegman and Clark suggested, the recumbent Ariadne from the Vatican collections, but the Roma Triumphans, a Roman 1st century statue of marble and porphyry now in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. Here it forms the centre of the Fontana della Dea Roma, created by Michelangelo in 1536, where it replaced an original statue of Minerva now in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum. One of the hallmarks of Batoni’s style was the frequent and careful use of antique statuary in his portraits, and their inclusion was no doubt made after suitable consultation with the sitter. This particular statue is not commonly found, but appears, for example, in an earlier Portrait of Prince Abbondio Rezzonico (1742–1810) in a Private collection, where it appropriately complements the sitter, who had just been appointed a Roman Senator (fig. 3).7
Even after some three decades of Grand Tour portraiture, this portrait shows that Batoni’s keenness to impress his British patrons had clearly not diminished. Though a native of Lucca he spent his entire career in Rome and was widely recognised as the most famous and brilliant exponent of the Grand Tour portrait. The combination of virtuoso handling of costume and lively characterisation proved an irresistible formula for his patrons and is exemplified by this portrait. The Van Dyck costume is used here to spectacular effect, and the lace of the collar and the ostrich feathers in the hat are testament to Batoni’s technical virtuosity. The freshness and immediacy of the sitter’s expression is well caught, and conveys an attractive mixture of both privilege and vulnerability. In this fashion Batoni held his position as the most celebrated painter of all the international visitors to Rome in the mid-eighteenth century. His portraits were, and remain ‘among the most memorable artistic accomplishments of the age’.8
1. Letter dated Geneva 19 October 1772. Cited by Ingamells 1997, p. 668.
2. Cited by H. Doubleday, G.H. White and Lord Howard de Walden, The Complete Peerage…, London 1936, 1987 edition vol. IV, p. 70, note (c).
3. Clark 1985, p. 336, cat. no. 384, reproduced plate 345.
4. H. Ward and W. Roberts, Romney, London 1904, vol. II, p. 107.
5. Clark 1985, p. 332, cat. no. 377, reproduced fig. 340.
6. For which see E.P. Bowron and P.B. Kerber, Pompeo Batoni. Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-century Rome, New Haven and London 2007, p. 62, fig. 57. Although such a costume was precisely that, it is interesting to note that Coke’s was observed from life and may well have been what he wore to the masquerade ball given by Lady Albany, the wife of the Young Pretender, in Rome in 1773.
7. Bowron and Kerber 2007, p. 116, reproduced fig. 106.
8. C. Saumarez-Smith, in the introduction to the exhibition, Pompeo Batoni. Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-century Rome, National Gallery, London and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 2007–08.
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