The Dealer's Eye | London

The Dealer's Eye | London

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 36. JOHN HAMILTON MORTIMER, A.R.A.  |  SELF-PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST.



Lot Closed

June 25, 01:34 PM GMT


30,000 - 50,000 GBP

Lot Details




Eastbourne 1740 - 1779 London


verso: Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A.

oil on canvas

unframed: 76.8 x 64.1 cm.; 30 1/4 x 25 1/4 in.

framed: 92 X 80.5 cm.; 36 1/4 x 31 3/4 in. 

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Philip Gell (1775–1842), Hopton Hall, Derbyshire; 

By inheritance at Hopton Hall to his daughter, Isabella, who married William Pole Thornhill, who renounced Hopton and its contents in favour of his kinsman, Henry Chandos-Pole-Gell (1829–1902);

By descent to his son, Brigadier General Harry Chandos-Pole-Gell (1872–1934), who sold Hopton Hall in 1918 and moved the family to Newnham Hall, Northamptonshire;

By descent to his son, Lt Colonel John Chandos-Pole (1909–1993), Newnham Hall;

Thence by descent until 2015, when acquired. 

A. Graves and W. V. Cronin, A History of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A., 4 vols., London 1901, vol. IV, p. 1394 (in reference to the copy after Reynolds, verso);

D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A complete catalogue of his paintings, 2 vols, New Haven and London 2000, text vol., p. 48, no. 13c (in reference to the copy after Reynolds, verso).

"Mortimer was something of a child prodigy, who, when still in his early 20s, burst onto the British art scene in the 1760s with an energy and inventiveness matched by few of his peers. One of the only British artists of the period to take the elevated genre of History painting seriously, he was a figure as romantic as the subjects he painted, who played as hard as he worked, and his early death at the age of thirty-nine, just five years after he was elected President of the Society of Artists, robbed the British art world of one of its most promising and innovative talents. I particularly like the unfinished spontaneity of this study and the intensity of purpose in his determined expression – those are the eyes of a young artist on the cusp of greatness!"

Julian Gascoigne

This sensitively handled oil is the earliest recorded self-portrait by John Hamilton Mortimer, painted 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 both a life-long friendship and working relationship. Previously unpublished, it 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. Mortimer was one of the most innovative and impressive painters of the mid-eighteenth century and the rediscovery of this sensitive early work reveals what a precocious talent he was from the very beginning. Being unfinished, it also offers valuable insights into the working methods of British painters at a transitional moment in the emergence of an indigenous school of art. A remarkably confident work for such a young artist still at the beginning of his training, the present portrait combines two important themes which would remain consistent features of Mortimer’s career. The first is self-portraiture itself. Like his older friend Joseph Wright of Derby, he was fascinated by self-portraiture. Four years after this study was painted, Mortimer produced another self-portrait, which he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762 (now untraced)1 – his first exhibited work, at the first exhibition of living British artists in London. Like Wright, Mortimer continued to produce self-portraits throughout his career, occasionally in the character of a banditti (inspired by the life and work of Salvator Rosa), in both single figure compositions and group conversations pieces – two such examples being the portrait of him with his father and brother out shooting woodcock (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven); and the portrait of him with the sculptor Joseph Wilton and a student, studying from the antique (Royal Academy of Arts, London).2

The second is artistic education. Again, like Wright, Mortimer was clearly fascinated by the process of learning to paint and draw and like Wright – whose famous Academy by Lamplight was exhibited at the Society of Arts in 1769 (Sotheby’s, 6 December 2017, lot 11) – he produced a series of celebrated images of artists at work. The same year Wright exhibited his famous masterpiece, both he and Mortimer were appointed as directors of the Maiden Lane Academy by the Society of Artists, a role that required them to set the life model during classes, along with Ozias Humphry, Robert Edge Pine, George Stubbs and Johan Zoffany. Although unfinished, here Mortimer depicts himself at work 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, much like the students in Wright’s Academy by Lamplight. The technique Mortimer has used in this study is also interesting, given that in 1758 he was still apprenticed to Thomas Hudson and was still learning to handle oil paint. The blond ground, the 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 he would return to in the 1760s.

Exactly why there is a copy of Joshua Reynold’s self-portrait of 1774 (private collection, England)3 painted on the reverse of Mortimer’s own self-portrait, created roughly fifteen years earlier, remains unclear. However, it may not be a coincidence that 1774 was the year in which John Hamilton Mortimer was elected President of the Society of Artists, the rival exhibiting organisation to the Royal Academy, of which Reynolds was President. Despite the enmity between the two societies, Mortimer was a great admirer of Reynolds, who had himself been a student of Thomas Hudson. He dedicated a series of fifteen etchings to Reynolds in 1778 and was highly sensitive to the elder artist’s Discourses. Indeed, in his anonymously penned Candid Observations of the 1772 Society of Artists exhibition, which he co-authored with his friend Thomas Jones, Mortimer noted against exhibit no. 215, his own painting of Belisarius: ‘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’.4

1 See J. Sutherland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works’, The Walpole Society, vol. LII, 1986, cat. no.7.

2 Another version of this painting, without the figure of Joseph Wilton, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 234)

3 Mannings 2000, no. 13.

4 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.