Art review: The Intimate Portrait
**** SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, EDINBURGH
WE READ a lot about the value of art, but invariably that word only ever means money. “What is it worth?” is the first and often the only question asked about a picture and the price the only reason it enters our collective consciousness. It is a reflection of the poverty of our culture that this is the only language of value we have and its inadequacy is surely demonstrated when we try to comprehend the 100 million that the Duke of Sutherland is asking for two paintings by Titian.
They are two of the greatest paintings in the whole history of Western art and we must keep them on public show, but that means he can hold us to ransom for a figure that is really off the scale of meaningful money value, incomprehensible in terms of our ordinary individual lives, or surely even his own – what can he do with all that money? Yet it is the parameters of our lives which are the ultimate frame for the meaning that those pictures hold.
It was not always thus. Art has been bought and sold since time began, but The Intimate Portrait at the SNPG reminds us of the very different value that it can have. There are miniatures in the exhibition that were made as cherished objects to be worn next to the skin, where money has no place; they doubled as jewels, but their preciousness was of the heart, not the bank balance. When George IV died, among the instructions in his will he asked that “the picture of my beloved wife [in fact, his mistress], my Maria Fitzherbert may be interr’d with me suspended around my neck by a ribbon as I used to wear it… and plac’d right upon my heart.” His instructions were carried out.
The miniature was painted by Richard Cosway, one of the foremost miniaturists of the day – a flamboyant dandy who stood just five feet tall, he was a bit of a miniature himself. Its case was gold, encrusted with diamonds, but those were only a way of expressing its true value, cherished as it was for the person it represented and, as it should be in matters of the heart, beyond price.
This exhibition is mounted jointly by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum and is drawn solely from the wonderful collections the two institutions hold. It is organised in three sections: Portraits of Artists, their Families and Friends, then with a distinctly modern touch, the Art of Celebrity, and finally, reflecting the explosion in the popularity of this kind of art until photography made it redundant, a section devoted to “Portraits en Masse”. Although they are so small, miniatures are at the heart of it. They really do focus the idea of intimacy, but the larger part of the exhibition is devoted to portrait drawings of various kinds.
The fashion for wearing miniatures as jewellery as a literal expression of closeness really began in the early 18th century and that is where the show begins – though the miniature portrait had originated in the 16th century. Usually oval and painted on ivory or enamelled on metal, miniatures were brilliant, exquisite objects. Jewel-like, they were treated as jewellery. They were also frequently set in gold and adorned with precious stones, though also occasionally with a lock of the sitter’s hair. A beautiful miniature by John Wright commissioned by her husband in memory of Caroline Matilda Sotheron who died aged just 25 is set with a lock of her hair, for instance.
A lovely drawing by Francis Wheatley of a girl sitting in bed in distinctly erotic deshabill and holding a miniature in her hand suggests these intimate paintings could indeed be vehicles of passion. And they really could be intimate to: a tiny painting by Charlotte Jones is simply of Princess Charlotte’s right eye. It gazes out at us beneath a painted lock of her golden hair that merges with a plait of her actual hair, and that in turn with the gold of the setting.
But miniatures had real status as portraits and could often compete with the larger format in their strength and incisiveness. In John Bogle’s vivid miniature of Commodore George Johnstone, the sitter does not look like someone you would want to carry close to your heart. Sir Henry Raeburn’s pupil, Andrew Robertson, was the last great miniature painter and he gave force and solidity worthy of his master to his tiny paintings.
An intriguing aspect of this show is the way it demonstrates how portrait drawings were evidently also perceived as intimate, in contrast to conventional painted portraits, even though it was clearly a different kind of intimacy from that seen in the miniature. They were usually hung on the wall as paintings were, but they seem to have been valued for their spontaneity because it suggests closeness. Richard Cosway combined this informality of the miniature by painting the face in miniature technique, but leaving the rest of the figure roughly sketched in, as in his portrait of Dorothy Jordan, for instance.
Certainly a portrait drawing can carry with it a unique sense of the moment of its making – none more so than Allan Ramsay’s wonderful red chalk drawing of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay. She is looking down, absorbed and apparently unaware of the artist. She might be sewing, perhaps. Around the drawing, unseen but felt, is a sense of the two of them sitting quietly by the fire of an evening. The drawing itself is what creates this penumbra of feeling. It is executed so tenderly, and yet with a summary delicacy that speaks of the artist’s reluctance to disturb the mood by intruding more closely on her, even with his thoughts. She is in three-quarter profile and where the further side of her face is indistinct, he has added what he knew but could not see.
Ramsay’s own self-portrait in pastel is more robust. Pastel, or “painting in crayons” as it was called, does have much greater solidity, but even when executed on the scale of the painted portrait, pastels evidently kept the status, and so the perceived informality, of drawings.
Archibald Skirving’s life-sized pastel of an unknown elderly woman is a masterpiece. The frankness with which he deals with her age grants her more dignity than any flattery ever could, and with dignity comes profound sympathy.
Thomas Lawrence, who was a brilliant draughtsman and who is seen at his very best in a lovely drawing of Mary Hamilton, nevertheless seems suave in comparison. John Brown is another Scot who stands out here, especially in a broadly executed pencil drawing of an unknown girl.
David Wilkie is outstanding too, with a brilliant portrait of Dugald Stewart. Gainsborough’s drawing of his daughter Mary is particularly lovely.
There are also unexpected things here: a miniature by William Blake of Thomas Butts; a portrait of Samuel Palmer in hat and scarf by Henry Walter; Richard Bonington’s moody self-portrait; a charming little drawing by David Scott of William Dyce sketching in a gondola; and with almost 200 items in the show there is a great deal else besides.
Ozias Humphry’s portrait of an old, grumpy and far from bonnie, Bonnie Prince Charlie is particularly memorable. So is Alexander Reid’s miniature of Burns, which the poet said was “the best likeness of me ever taken”. A more improbable celebrity was the Chevalier d’Eon, drawn by George Dance. A French spy in London, he was a cross-dresser. Eventually banished from France, he was only allowed to return dressed as a woman. In England, he gave fencing demonstrations in women’s clothes, though from this portrait he could not have been a convincing woman.
The other way around, one unknown lady in a miniature by Gervase Spencer has, in the label here, inadvertently become an unknown man, though in contrast to the Chevalier she does look very pretty and is distinctly feminine.
• Until 1 February 2009. For full details, log on to www.nationalgalleries.org
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