Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Intimate Portraits From The Georgian and Regency Period Featured in New Exhibition at the British Museum

This beautiful portrait of Mary Hamilton by Sir Thomas Lawrence in an announcement of a new exhibition at the British Museum caught my eye. I collect small historical portraits called Cameo Creations and Mary Hamilton, with her rather windswept hair and trace of a broad brimmed hat looks very much like a portrait in my collection of Elizabeth, The Duchess of Devonshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. I have always been fascinated by historical portraits as if studying the faces of these people could somehow provide keys to unlocking the past.

My son had a less appreciative viewpoint of my hobby when he was growing up. I overhead him telling his friends, once, that his Mom was a little strange because she hung pictures of dead people she didn't even know all over the house.

Anyway, I hope if you are able to attend this exhibit at the British Museum you do appreciate these marvelous works of art. Alas, I just returned from Rome so won't be venturing "across the pond" again this year.

"The Intimate Portrait will explore the period between the 1730s and the 1830s – the heyday of British portraiture – when some of the country’s greatest artists produced beautifully worked portraits in pencil, chalks, watercolours and pastels that were often exhibited, sold and displayed as finished works of art. Jointly organised by the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Museum, this exhibition of 180 works will draw upon the superb (and largely unexplored) holdings of intimate portrait drawings in the collections of both institutions, as well as upon important private collections that have been placed on long-term loan at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Highlights will include masterpieces by Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and David Wilkie.

While oil paintings and sculpture dominated the very public art of portraiture which flourished in Georgian and Regency Britain, many artists were simultaneously involved in creating more private portraits for domestic consumption and display. Portrait miniatures painted in watercolour on ivory were worn as jewellery or displayed as treasures in cabinets; pastels with their fragile but brilliant surfaces were protected under glass and hung within gilt frames; while drawings were either framed and hung in family groups or kept in albums or portfolios to be shown to friends and family.

Until now, there has never been a serious investigation of these captivating modes of portraiture, and it has largely been forgotten that these smaller, more intimate portraits were also enjoyed by a wider public, and were exhibited in their hundreds at the Royal Academy in London and other public exhibition spaces in Britain. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s magnificent portrait drawing of Mary Hamilton, which will feature in the exhibition, was one of a dozen pastel and chalk drawings he showed at the RA in 1789.

The Intimate Portrait will bring together works by around eighty artists, including many of the leading figures of the period, such as Richard Cosway, Henry Fuseli, John Downman, John Hoppner, the architect George Dance and the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Two Scottish artists, John Brown and Archibald Skirving, will be a revelation to London audiences and of particular note will be two masterly self-portrait drawings by the young rivals Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

The exhibition is arranged thematically to look at artists’ self-portraits and images of their families and friends, as well as their portrayal of the rising middle classes and the celebrities of the day. Well-known sitters include Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Lady Hamilton, the Duke of Wellington and the young Queen Victoria. Intimate portraits are revealed to be important indicators of contemporary taste and ideas of ‘sentiment’, particularly through the many portraits of women and of children. The exhibition explores how and why they were made, where they were displayed and, above all, their qualities as portraits that are ‘intimate’ in the multiple senses of the word." - The British Museum