This important picture, untraced for over a hundred years, is one of only three portraits by Reynolds of one of the founder members of the Royal Academy. It dates from 1756, and Martin Postle has pointed out that it share considerable stylistic similarities with two other portraits by Reynolds from this period of his career, both now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery: that of the artist’s friend, Samuel Johnson, seated at a table very similar to that in Yeo’s portrait; and that of the engraver James McArdell.
Yeo is depicted seated at work with a medal on the table. He was a leading medallist and engraver of coins and gems. His earliest work may well be the production of silver season tickets for entry to the famous Vauxhall Gardens, including the so-called Hogarth ticket, presented to Hogarth by Jonathan Tyers. Yeo first came to public notice in 1746, however, when given the significant commission to produce the official medal commemorating the battle of Culloden. Later that year he produced another Culloden medal with an image of the Duke of Cumberland, taken from life, and on the reverse the Duke as Hercules trampling upon Discord. In 1749 Yeo was made Assistant-Engraver to the Royal Mint and was promoted in 1775 to Chief-Engraver. He was responsible for the patterns of a number of coins with the head of George III, and in 1770 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a gold proof from a die of a five guinea piece. Notable amongst his many medals were the Chancellors Medal made for Cambridge in March 1752 and the medal commemorating Captain Watson’s voyage to China in April 1760.
Yeo was an active member of the Society of Artists where between 1760 and 1768 he was responsible for twenty-one exhibits, the first being a proof in copper of a medal of the Duke of Cumberland. Yeo joined the group of directors who broke away from the Society in 1768 to found the Royal Academy, and of the thirty-six founder members he was one of a very small group of artists who were not painters.. In Zoffany’s famous portrait of the Royal Academicians (Royal Collection) Yeo is prominently depicted with Zuccarelli both checking the position of the model who is to be painted. Reynolds became the first president of the Royal Academy in 1768, but his association with Yeo went back much further as Yeo produced a special prized yellow lake pigment used by Reynolds and referred to in his ledger as ‘yeo’s yellow.’
In the 1890s the portrait was purchased by Catholina Lambert, a prominent silk manufacturer in New Jersey, to hang in the castle which he built with a large art gallery to display his substantial collection.
We are grateful to Dr Martin Postle and Dr Matthew Hargreaves for confirming the attribution to Reynolds based on first-hand inspection of the painting, and to Professor David Mannings and Dr Nicholas Penny for endorsing the attribution on the basis of a photograph.