Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Emma Laura Whitbread (1798-1857) 1800c.

John Hoppner RA (1758–1810)

Portrait of Emma Laura Whitbread (1798-1857), John Hoppner RA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 102 cm
Rt Hon Viscount Eversley (1794-1888), Heckfield Place, Winchfield, Hampshire; Christies, London, 9th May 1896, lot 59 (180 guineas to Agnews, London); W. Mackenzie, Toronto, 1909; Jenkins Galleries, Toronto, 1927; Thomas Agnew & Son, 1930; Christies New York, 18th January 1983, lot 90.
William McKay and W Roberts, The Works of John Hoppner RA, London 1909, p.286
Brussels, Cercle Artistique de Literataire de Bruxeles, December 1896 no.29 Atlanta, High Museum of Art
To view portraits by John Hoppner for sale, please go to www.philipmould.com.

Along with Gainsborough and Reynolds, Hoppner was one of the leading portrait painters in late eighteenth-century Britain. Born in London on 25 April 1758, he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1775, where he won a Gold Medal in 1782. His rapid rise, however, was accompanied by rumours (never denied by Hoppner) that he was the illegitimate son of the future King George III, a story which sprung from his mother’s position as a Lady in Waiting to the Princess of Wales, George’s mother. No strong evidence has ever been discovered to support the allegation, but it is true that in his education and early career Hoppner benefited from a considerable degree of royal sponsorship. He was brought up as a child of the Chapel Royal, tutored in the Royal Library where King George paid great attention to his progress, and finally presented with an allowance from the royal purse in order that he might establish himself as a painter.

By the late 1780s Hoppner was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions and quickly established himself as a fashionable portrait painter. In 1789 he succeeded Reynolds in his appointment as painter to the Prince of Wales in 1789, many of whose circle he painted. In short, he seemed destined to become Reynolds’ successor as the leading portraitist of his age.

However, the sudden and triumphant rise of Thomas Lawrence had a deep impact on Hoppner’s early career. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790 Hoppner’s two entries, thoughtful and highly accomplished portraits of the Horneck sisters, were dramatically overshadowed by two of Lawrence’s greatest full-lengths – Queen Charlotte (National Gallery, London), and the actress Elizabeth Farren (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). As a result, Hoppner felt obliged throughout the 1790s to step out of Lawrence’s shadow, exhibiting, for example, an impressive fourteen paintings in the Academy exhibitions of 1791 and 1792, of whom ten were Royal sitters.

And yet, it seems that the spirit of competition had a beneficial effect on Hoppner’s style and technique. Though his early works display a great debt to the later portraits of Reynolds, Hoppner soon developed an individual style that is distinguished by bravura and vivacity, combined with a strong feeling of character. These works (of which the present portrait is an excellent and rare example) show a deliberate move away from the classicism of Reynolds, towards a more emotionally engaging and naturalistic image. Hoppner’s success is evident by the fact that he became the only serious rival to the young Lawrence, and with him was responsible for painting the finest Romantic portraits of the Regency period.

The present work is a triumphant expression of Hoppner’s painterly style, and was painted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. While Reynolds’ advised his pupils to rely upon academic study, preparation and drawing, Hoppner preferred to begin working immediately with oils on the canvas. It was precisely this free and fluid approach that allowed Hoppner to capture not only character and presence, but combine them with fresh and remarkably involving compositions. Here, for example, Hoppner has included an extensive landscape which, for all its brooding intensity, only adds to the charm of the sitter by lending her a (perhaps implausible) air of rustic contentment. The sitter, Emma Laura Whitbread, was the grandson of Samuel Whitbread, the noted brewer. Her father, also Samuel, was a prominent Whig politician, supporter of Charles James Fox, and MP for Bedford. Emma married, in 1817, another politician, Charles Shaw-Lefevre, one of the most noted Speakers of the nineteenth century.
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