Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Locke 1790s

John Hoppner RA (1758–1810)

Portrait of William Locke, John Hoppner RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 x 24 inches, 73.5 x 61 cm
William Angerstein, Weeting Hall, Norfolk; Christies, 4th July 1896, lot 111; Bt Agnews for 400 guineas; Sir William Agnew Bt (1825-1910); Sir Gordon Vereker (1889-1976), by whose executors sold; Christies London 18th March 1977, lot 113. Private Collection UK
W. Mackay and W. Roberts, John Hoppner, (London 1914) p.156
Probably Royal Academy, 1783, no 96; ‘Portrait of a Young Gentleman’
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Along with Gainsborough, Romney and Reynolds, Hoppner was one of the leading portraitists in late eighteenth-century Britain, and was the principal rival to Sir Thomas Lawrence to be the best British painter of the early nineteenth century. 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.

This exquisite portrait was painted in 1784, and is thus one of Hoppner’s earliest and most impressive works. It displays the easy freedom and painterliness that set Hoppner apart from his contemporaries, and already shows the bold brushwork and harmonized tones and colours that are seen in his later works. It is an emotionally engaging and naturalistic image, and is evidence of the impending break from Reynolds’s occasionally distant Grand Manner.

The sitter, William Locke, was then aged 17, and it is clear from the engaging characterisation seen here that he and Hoppner enjoyed a close relationship. Hoppner is known to have visited and painted Norbury Park, home of the Locke family in Surrey, and both the sitter and his father were amongst the leading patrons of English artists in society. William Locke Jnr was a young artist of great promise. His drawings can today be found in the Tate, the Yale Center for British Art and the Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York. He was a close friend and pupil of Henry Fuseli, who dedicated his lectures on painting to him, and held with high regard his “amiability of character and his extensive knowledge… [and] his taste and critical judgment in the fine arts” [The Fuseli Circle in Rome, Nancy Pressly, Yale 1979]. However, Locke abandoned his desire to become an artist after his own Grand Tour, apparently daunted by the achievements of the Old Masters he saw in Italy. He later sold Norbury Park, and lived in both Rome and Paris with the society beauty Elizabeth Jennings, whom he married in 1800.

The fact that the present work was engraved and published by Charles Townley, very soon after it was painted, strongly suggests that it was the ‘portrait of a Young Gentleman’ exhibited in 1783 at the Royal Academy, it then being common practice for portraits to be exhibited anonymously. It is one of the first Hoppner portraits to be engraved, and, along with other early works such as the three daughters of George IV, would have helped launch his reputation. By the late 1780s Hoppner was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions and had 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. It may have been galling for Hoppner that the Lockes too became patrons of Lawrence, with William Jnr sitting for a portrait that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791. Hoppner continued to attract important clients and great praise for the remainder of his career, but declining health dogged his final years. He died in 1810 after a long illness.
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