Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Head Study of a Young Boy 1690c.

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Head Study of a Young Boy, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Black and white chalks on paper
17th Century
6 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches 15.5 x 14 cm
By descent in the family of the Earls of Dysart at Ham House until sold to R.A. Lee by Sir Cecil Lyonel Tollemache 5th Bt (1886-1969); R.A. Lee Collection
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Unlike most of Kneller's surviving drawings, the present work would not appear to relate directly to a portrait commission, or at least, if associated with one, depicts an attitude that would be unlikely to be reproduced in a completed painting. The sitter''s downward gaze would be unusual in a portrait of a young boy, and doubly so in a family portrait, in which the gaze of younger members is invariably elevated towards their parents.

There is a particular intensity in the study which makes one feel that this was a drawing executed for its own sake. We know that Kneller sometimes drew simply for the pleasure of capturing a likeness when the fit took him, as is shown in the famous anecdote of his time as Justice of the Peace for Twickenham. The painter, who was hearing the evidence of a young woman who had gone to him to swear a rape, kept her talking whilst he drew her face, because some aspect of it seemed to him particularly striking.

Certainly the present drawing displays a refinement and delicacy which suggest that it was executed as a work in its own right. The careful shading and modelling of the mouth and the nose can be distinguished from the more schematic treatments employed in many of Kneller's portrait studies, where the purpose is clearly to fix a likeness as part of the working process. The use of white chalk to provide the highlights to forehead, nose and cheekbone is particularly sure.
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