Jonathan Richardson
by Himself

by | Exhibition

When the collection of drawings that had belonged to Jonathan Richardson the Younger was sold at auction in 1772, there was a revelation. Interspersed with Richardson’s Old Masters were well over a thousand drawings by his beloved father, the portrait painter Jonathan Richardson the Elder, brought into the public eye for the first time. Over 650 of these were portraits, of which a substantial proportion are described as self-portraits. Although many of these have again disappeared from view, today around fifty-five self-portrait drawings by Richardson are known.

Jonathan Richardson, Self-portrait, 1735, Black and white chalk on blue paper, 237 x 267 mm, The National Portrait Gallery, London

Jonathan Richardson, Self-portrait, c. 1735
©The National Portrait Gallery, London

Few people outside the elder Richardson’s immediate circle of friends can have known of the existence of these works. They were not made for sale, or as preparatory studies for paintings – in fact, drawing seems not to have played an important part in his studio practice, and Richardson seems in most cases to have worked directly onto the canvas. Instead, they were private, independent drawings, apparently made entirely for their own sake. Horace Walpole, who purchased some of Richardson’s portraits at the sale, remarked that “after his retirement from business, the good old man seems to have amused himself with writing a short poem, and drawing his own or son’s portrait every day”. Although Walpole exaggerated the frequency with which they were produced (it was probably every week or two), the sheer quantity of these self- portraits was still staggering. Using different media and working sometimes on large sheets of paper and at others on small vellum leaves, Richardson depicted himself in a range of moods and guises: in some he subjected his ageing face to unflinching scrutiny, while in others he projected a suave and sophisticated persona. Made regularly over a period of years and usually inscribed with the precise date they were made, these self-portraits amount to nothing less than a visual diary. They were unprecedented in England – and it was not until the late twentieth century and the rise of video art that self-portraiture of a comparably serial nature was attempted.

Richardson had risen from modest beginnings – he was the son of a London silk weaver – to become one of the most successful portrait painters of his generation. His sitters included many luminaries of the late Stuart and early Georgian era – aristocrats Sir Robert Walpole and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, authors Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior and Sir Richard Steele, the sculptor Michael Rysbrack, the artist Sir James Thornhill, and the great physician-collectors Sir Hans Sloane and Dr Richard Mead. According to his son, Richardson had twice been “powerfully invited” to be the King’s Painter, but had refused because of his “aversion to what he called ‘the slavery of court dependence’”. He also wrote influential books on art theory and connoisseurship, and was a director, from its foundation in 1711, of the first formal academy of art to be established in England. On Richardson’s death in 1745, the early Georgian chronicler of the art world George Vertue remarked that “this was the last of the Eminent old painters that had been cotemporyes in Reputation – Kneller, Dahl, Jarvis & Richardson for portrait painting”.

As far as we know, Richardson began in earnest to make self-portrait drawings in 1728, a couple of years before his semi-retirement from professional life. Over the following years he regularly drew his own portrait and that of his eldest son, as well as making numerous small drawings of friends and acquaintances. The latest date on a self-portrait drawing is 1739, although Richardson continued to draw portraits of others into the early 1740s.

For his self-portrait drawings Richardson habitually used either of two sets of media. One of these was chalk – principally black heightened with white, sometimes with the addition of red – mostly on large sheets of blue paper. Chalk was a versatile medium, sufficiently dense to be sharpened to a point for linear detail, but soft enough to be ideal for modelling. The drawings in this group mostly show Richardson as he would have dressed when he was at home: in an era when gentlemen wore wigs as part of formal dress and as a consequence shaved their heads, he normally wears a soft cap but occasionally has his head uncovered. As well as for drawings of himself, he also used chalks to make portraits of his son, but only rarely used this medium for portraits of others. These chalk drawings are mostly large, with the head rendered at sight size.

Jonathan Richardson Self portrait red chalk on off white paper c1738

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, c. 1738
©The Courtauld Gallery, London

Richardson also made numerous self-portrait drawings in the more delicate medium of graphite; these were usually on small sheets of fine vellum, a smoother drawing surface than paper. He used graphite for a wider range of self-portraiture than chalks: sometimes he presented himself in inventive and humorous ways, such as in profile, all’antica, as though on the face of a coin or medal, or crowned with bays in the guise of a celebrated poet. In some he copied his image from oil paintings made decades earlier, in order to recall his appearance as a younger man. However, many other graphite-on-vellum drawings have a direct, informal air which suggests that they were drawn from the life and, as in the chalk drawings, show the artist wearing a soft cap rather than a formal wig or with his head uncovered. Graphite on vellum is also the medium Richardson most frequently used for the many small portraits of friends, acquaintances and historical figures he made for his own collection.

He also made many pen-and-ink portrait sketches, most of which are of a sketchy and even perfunctory nature, and are apparently preparatory stages in the production of the more refined drawings on vellum. In addition, Richardson made at least five self-portrait etchings, in at least one case working from preparatory drawings.

Richardson used materials creatively, and although he appears to have employed graphite rather than chalks for his most playful jeux d’esprit, the portraits in his two principal sets of media share much common ground. If anything, his choice of medium was probably dictated by location; if he apparently confined large sheets of paper and potentially messy chalks to his home, it was probably because pen and ink, and small neat leaves of fine vellum and graphite pencils, were easily portable and more appropriate to friends’ drawing rooms.

A kind of an additional life

It was not just portrait drawings that occupied Richardson during these years of semi-retirement; another important activity – even a parallel one – was writing poetry. “A kind of an additional life” – this was how Richardson, an early riser, described the hours he spent thinking and writing poems before the day began. According to his son, “He rose very early in the summer, often at four, seldom later than six even in winter, for he had his fire laid, and a rush-light burning, to kindle it himself, with two large candles placed. These hours he used to call ‘his own’.” Richardson himself described his daily routine in the following words: “I wake early, think; dress me, think; walk, think; come back to my chamber, think; and as I allow no thoughts unworthy to be written, I write. Thus verse is grown habitual to me.” Although we do not know if Richardson also made his self-portraits in these early-morning hours, he certainly applied a similar degree of self-scrutiny to the drawings as is found in his poems. Like his portrait drawings, Richardson’s poems chiefly date from the latter part of his life; also like his drawings, they were produced frequently and almost always dated precisely.

Richardson’s poems were edited by his eldest son but only published after the latter’s death by James Dodsley in 1776 as Morning Thoughts, or Poetical Meditations, Moral, Divine and Miscellaneous, Together with several other Poems on various subjects. The poems collected in the volume were, essentially, personal and Richardson had not wished them to be published in his lifetime. However, the inclusion of a preface written in part by Richardson himself indicates that he had contemplated and was willing for a selection of his poems to be published after his death. The 240 chosen for the book were, Richardson Junior notes, “part of a much larger number intended for publication”, and indeed Morning Thoughts is described on the title page as volume I, although the further volume, or even volumes, that this implies never appeared. Morning Thoughts was presumably printed in a small edition and is, today, an exceptionally rare book.

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait as a poet 1732

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait as a poet, c. 1732
©The Courtauld Gallery, London

Richardson wrote what he considered to be two types of poem, which are divided into separate sections in the published volume. The ‘Morning Thoughts’, occupying the first part of the volume, belong to a relatively short time-span during Richardson’s years of semi-retirement, and were composed between 1732 and 1736. Richardson limited the subject matter of these poems to a number of recurrent themes: observations of the dawn; reflections on the swift passage of time and his own ageing; examination of his moral integrity; and his eagerness to begin the day ahead. The verses, which fill the latter part of the volume, were composed over a greater time-span, between 1704 and 1735. They have a more varied emotional register; some are witty and epigrammatic, while others poignantly lament the writer’s widowhood. For the era in which they were written, they are extraordinary for their direct and unguarded manner of expression. These poems show more formal variation than the ‘Morning Thoughts’, and range from pithy couplet to multi-stanza lyric. As with the portrait drawings, both types of poem are usually dated specifically to the day, occasionally even to the hour.

Despite his willingness for his verses eventually to be published, Richardson did not regard them as polished works of art; in his preface he instructs the reader: “I call these, Thoughts, not poems; consider them accordingly”. For Richardson, the value of writing poetry lay in its capacity to engender introspection and self-improvement. He noted in particular its effect on the quality of his thought, which he considered to be “greatly improved and enlarged by writing … verse hath still a greater advantage, it gives a compass, and elevation, and variety, a greatness and grace, which prose sits down satisfied without”. The practice of self- portraiture demanded a similar degree of disciplined self-examination, and it is appears that Richardson regarded the two art forms in a similar light. Poems and portraits alike provided an arena for this extraordinary man to shape – and to express – his thoughts and moods.

All my swift successive nows

So what was the purpose of the self-portrait drawings? This is not an easy question to answer, because Richardson’s surviving correspondence contains no direct reference to them, nor does he mention them in his published works of art theory. His pronouncements on portraiture generally, however, provide a context:

Jonathan Richardson Self portrait red chalk on off white paper c 1728

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, c. 1728
©The Courtauld Gallery, London

a portrait is a sort of General History of the Life of the Person it represents, not only to Him who is acquainted with it, but to Many Others, who upon Occasion of seeing it are frequently told, of what is most Material concerning Them, or their General Character at least.

In this account, the portrait is expected to do much more than capture a particular moment. Charged with significance, it must be a vehicle for expressing a biographical narrative. But here Richardson was talking about oil paintings – which, in the hierarchy of media understood at the time, enjoyed a far more elevated status than drawings. Richardson had a vested interest in aggrandising the portrait painting, and argued in his theoretical works that portraiture was capable of attaining the depth and gravitas of ‘history painting’, the most esteemed genre of works on historical, religious or literary themes.

The fact that Richardson’s self-portrait drawings are nearly all dated precisely places them in a different category – each is not a ‘General History’ but, rather, a particular one. These drawings allowed Richardson to explore individual facets of character that – in the light of his theories – the oil painting ought to aspire beyond. Richardson’s belief that the portrait painter should endow his subject with a poise he or she might assume “when one comes into Company, or into any Publick Assembly, or at the first Sight of any particular Person” is, again, the opposite of what the maker of private self-portrait drawings might do. Fewer rules were attached to drawing, with the result that it offered a greater freedom of expression – and among its advantages was the capacity to capture the fleeting moment, or “all my swift successive nows”, in Richardson’s own evocative phrase.

In his retirement, time – how to make the most of it, and its passing – became an important theme for Richardson. On the back of one of the self-portraits an inscription apparently in the hand of Jonathan Junior reads Tranquilla Senectus, a quotation from the Roman poet Horace, meaning ‘peaceful old age’. But this seems to imply a relaxation from activity, which was alien to Richardson’s character. Elsewhere his son notes that one of Richardson’s most common phrases was ‘As fast as possible’, recalling that it was “an expression so frequent with him, that my dear mother used to make herself and him, now and then, merry with rallying him on this perpetual proof of the activity of his spirit”. Many titles in Morning Thoughts indicate the importance of activity to the author: ‘Busy’; ‘Fill Time Well’; ‘Be Doing’; ‘Early Impatience to be in Action’, and in one particular poem Richardson writes of “Detesting a dishonour’d idleness”. And indeed, the context of the quotation, from Horace’s Satires, complicates the apparently simple sentiment; rather than calm acceptance, the phrase actually relates to determined activity: “whether peaceful old age awaits me, or if death hovers about me with black wings, rich, poor, at Rome, or if chance wills it, an exile, whatever complexion my life takes on, I will write” – write, that is, as a critical observer of life. What the inscription records is the classically educated Jonathan Junior’s tribute to his father’s energetic spirit.

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait as a poet 1735

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait at the age of thirty, 1735
©The Courtauld Gallery, London

Richardson’s poems contain much biographical information that sheds light on his activities and opinions. In a poem addressed to his friend Sir Berkeley Lucy, ‘Leisure with Dignity’, he describes how, in retirement, he “employs” his “leisure hours”. He explains that now no longer a professional portraitist, he enjoys practising his art all the more: “Not mercenary now, the art belov’d, / Companion, friend, with native lustre shines”. Richardson tells Sir Berkeley that, freed from the constraints of a busy commercial practice, he is able to indulge his love of drawing for its own sake – and, as a portraitist, it is hardly surprising that he chose to concentrate on the face – his own and those of others.

The other side of the coin of his preoccupation with activity, however, was Richardson’s acute awareness of the passing of time. He may have been drawn to writing and drawing because of his compulsion to ‘Fill Time Well’, but once engaged with these pursuits darker reflections often came to the surface. The poem of that name begins: “My life, each morning when I dress, / Is four and twenty hours less; / Incessantly the current flows, / And ev’ry hour an hour goes” – an arresting description of how he felt the time he had left to live to be ticking inexorably away. In late autumn and winter of 1733 he was particularly beset by melancholy reflections in the wake of the apparent breakdown of a close friendship, and returned to the theme of passing time, for example in ‘To the Clock’, in which he addresses the inexorable march of hours: “O Strike no more, thou strik’st too fast, / Since last thou struck’st, an hour is past”. The theme of mortality also emerges in his self-portrait drawings, perhaps most powerfully in a portrait of October 1735, in which Richardson dwells on his ageing face. The portraits do two related things: they make time stand still by their capacity to record the fleeting moment; but they also document its effects. And in the tradition of the memento mori image, they allow Richardson to contemplate the fact of his own ageing.

To raise and mend my soul I meditate

In a poem entitled ‘Why I Write’, which Richardson composed on 19 December 1734, he explains:

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, 1736 from The British Museum

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, 1736
©The British Museum, London

Though few approve, I’ll write my thoughts, but why?
Indeed, ye nice, ’tis not to humour you;
I write to please myself, I not deny,
And to give pleasure to the friendly few.
And not alone to please, though worthy that,
More worthy yet is my sincere design;
To raise and mend my soul I meditate,
And happy thou, if that intent be thine.

If we understand ideas expressed in his poems also to be motivating factors for his self-portraits, then drawing his own countenance can be seen asa contemplative process through which Richardson reflected on his character and state of mind. Drawing was a discipline that demanded focused concentration on his entire self – not just on his features, but on his moral values too. For Richardson, the self-scrutiny necessary to self-portraiture was not mere passive observation; it could – and should – lead to greater self-knowledge. Richardson’s search for this goal had a classical framework. The quotation from Horace that Jonathan Junior eventually placed on the title page of Morning Thoughts, “Socraticis madet Sermonibus” (steeped in the Socratic dialogues), evokes Socrates’s own lively quest for self-knowledge, summed up by his famous assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” – a maxim that applies equally to Richardson’s investigative project of self-portraiture.

The search for moral self-awareness through the medium of self-portraiture, and the classical framework of this endeavour, is vividly illustrated by a work that, unusually, bears a Latin inscription written by Richardson himself, rather than his son. Below the portrait, which shows him wearing a thoughtful, even shrewd expression, he has written the words Quod adest compenere, a contraction of “Quod adest memento componere aequus”, from Horace’s Odes, meaning ‘remember to settle the problem at hand with a level spirit’. This Horatian memorandum-to-self suggests that Richardson regarded the process of self-portraiture as an opportunity to reflect on his character and actions, to control his mood and to consider ways to tackle immediate problems.

Dear resemblances

Richardson himself tells us that, during these contemplative years of semi-retirement, he spent time in his room reminiscing about his life and reviewing its events and personae. Towards the end of a narrative poem describing a journey from Whitchurch in Hampshire, where he had been staying with a friend, back along the course of the Thames to his home in London, Richardson describes his way of life:

Jonathan Richardson Self pen and ink 1736

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, 1736
©The National Portrait Gallery, London

Now to my room and solitary chair
I haste, and all my soul is busy’d there;
There night and morn I meditate and read,
Review my thoughts, and every word and deed,
My hopes and fears, my joys and griefs renew’d,
My passions are encourag’d, or subdu’d;
The pleasing scenes of my past life again
I there enjoy, and triumph o’er the pain,

Self-portraits were part of this process of review, and one of the ways in which Richardson reflected on his “past life” was by occasionally representing himself in drawings as a younger man, creating a sort of visual autobiography: an inscription on the back of a graphite-on-vellum drawing made in 1735 records that it was copied from an oil painting executed in 1692, a self-portrait (untraced) dating from shortly before his marriage.

But there is a broader context to these self- portraits, because another of the ways in which Richardson addressed his past and fleshed out his visual autobiography was by creating portraits on vellum or paper to which he referred in a letter as “my Collection of the Portraits of my Friends”. Some of these were copied from existing paintings while others were drawn from the life or from preparatory pen-and-ink sketches.

Richardson’s most frequent subjects, after himself, were his eldest son and his great friend, the poet Alexander Pope. Jonathan Junior remained unmarried and continued to live in his father’s house. The two men were very close, sharing literary and artistic interests and collaborating on books; Richardson regarded his son’s talents and experience as complementary to his own, so much so that he even referred to him as ‘My Other Self ’. A great many surviving drawings both in chalk and in graphite record Jonathan Junior’s features, and even after Richardson Senior had, apparently, stopped making self-portraits, he continued to draw his son; touchingly, he is portrayed in what was perhaps the last portrait drawing Richardson made, dated August 1743.

Richardson portrayed Pope numerous times, sometimes in carefully finished portraits, at others in informal sketches evidently made as they sat and talked. He also made drawings of other members of his social circle such as the artist Sir James Thornhill, the physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane and the antiquaries George Vertue and Martin Folkes. These portraits were created in the context of friendship, something that is particularly evident in a group of portraits Richardson made in the early 1730s of Catherine Knapp, whom he met at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire, the house of a mutual friend. Mrs Knapp shared Richardson’s love of poetry, and he addressed a number of playful and flirtatious poems to her; she also inspired some of his most delicate and lively graphite-on-vellum drawings.

Richardson regarded the portrait as having a commemorative function, writing in his Essay on the Theory of Painting:

And thus we see the Persons and Faces of Famous Men, the Originals of which are out of our reach, as being gone down with the Stream of Time, or in distant Places: And thus too we see our Relatives and Friends, whether living or dead, as they have been in all the Stages of Life. In Picture we never dye, never decay, or grow older.

This conviction of the importance of portraiture in recording personalities and making absent friends and relatives present, central to humanist thought, assumed a particular importance to Richardson’s contemporaries. At this time there was a growing appetite for engraved portraits in England, for which Vertue did much to cater with the prodigious number of prints he engraved and published of poets, kings and other illustrious figures. Over the next decades the collecting of portrait heads became a popular pursuit; it was Richardson’s innovation to create his own personal portrait gallery.

Describing his room at home, Richardson remarked on his surroundings:

Jonathan Richardson Self black and white chalk 1728

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, 1728
©The British Museum, London

As here I sit, and cast my eyes around,
The history of my past life is found,
The dear resemblances of those, whose names
Nourish and brighten more the purest flames.

Richardson is clearly referring to portraits here, and as he seems to be speaking of his bedroom, one would expect the works to be, in the main, drawings or prints rather than oil paintings, which suggests that he had framed a selection of his most finished vellum drawings for display. This was the very time at which framing and hanging prints and drawings became popular; noting that they “are an agreeable Ornament for Rooms”, Vertue offered his portrait prints for sale “in neat black Frames and Glasses”. However, given the numbers of his portrait drawings, and the evidence of ruled borders on some of them, which are consistent with those he added to other works in his collection, it is likely that Richardson arranged the majority in albums, which is how his Old Master drawings were housed.

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait c 1728-33 red chalk

Jonathan Richardson Self-portrait, c.1728-33
©The British Museum, London

Richardson did not limit his scope to friends and acquaintances; he also made numerous portraits of historical figures including John Milton, Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Usually on small sheets of paper or vellum, these were either copied from works in his own extensive collection or those of his friends. He made portraits of Milton from three main sources: a pastel drawing by William Faithorne that Richardson had acquired from Vertue in the early 1730s; a portrait miniature by Samuel Cooper; and, most frequently, a cast of a bust attributed to Edward Pearce that belonged to Vertue. Richardson owned a plaster cast of Bernini’s bust of Charles I – an interesting rarity, because the original had been destroyed in the Whitehall fire of 1698 – from which he made a number of drawings. The sale catalogue of Richardson’s collection lists a bust of Cromwell, which also served as a model; Richardson clearly took the opportunity to record the features of these famous men from three-dimensional representations where possible. That these little drawings exist in such large numbers suggests that, in repeatedly scrutinising the faces of these figures, Richardson sought to attain a greater understanding of their characters – which was, without doubt, a central motivation in drawing his own.

Richardson’s collection was a source of inspiration in another important way. Unusually for the time in England, he greatly admired Rembrandt as a draughtsman and owned a large group of drawings and etchings by him, the most extensive then in England. His collection included at least one of Rembrandt’s intense and introspective self-portrait etchings, which he stamped in the bottom right-hand corner with his collector’s mark. Rembrandt’s example both as an inveterate self-portraitist and as a compulsive draughtsman must surely have set Richardson on his own course, motivating him to explore the capacity of the portrait to track the face over time, recording its ageing and the shades of its changing moods. Above all, Richardson knew that it was through drawing – the medium he loved, and that he described as being “the very Spirit, and Quintessence” of art – that he could realise his extraordinary project.

The Courtauld Gallery presents

Jonathan Richardson by Himself

Until 20 September 2015
Curated by Dr Susan Owens

This display explores a remarkable series of self-portrait drawings by Jonathan Richardson the Elder (1667-1745), one of the most influential cultural figures of 18th century England. A leading portrait painter, Richardson was also a highly acclaimed art theorist, and accomplished poet and amassed one of the greatest collections of drawings of the age.

Dr Susan Owens is a writer, art historian and freelance curator with a particular interest in British drawings and watercolours. Susan writes for the T.L.S., The World of Interiors and has published several articles in the Burlington Magazine. Her book The Art of Drawing: British Masters and Methods Since 1600 (V&A) was published in 2013.

Until going freelance, Susan was Curator of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she had curatorial responsibility for post-1800 British and foreign oil paintings, watercolours and drawings.

Before joining the V&A Susan worked for the Royal Collection as a curator in the Print Room at Windsor Castle. She curated the major Queen’s Gallery exhibitions Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery.

Susan Owens portrait

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