Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) 

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches, 91.5 x 71 cm
The Hon. Sherman Stonor, Stonor Park, Henley; With Dulau & Company Ltd, London by 1940.
‘The Portraits of Alexander Pope’, by William Kurtz Wimsatt (London 1965), p.39, no.5.5
‘The Liverpool Catholic Exhibition’, no.58
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Alexander Pope sat to no less than twelve artists in his lifetime, among them Louis Roubilliac, Charles Jervas, and William Hoare of Bath. As a result, there are numerous copies of the nineteen or so different likenesses of him. But this portrait, from the studio of Pope’s friend and card-playing partner Sir Godfrey Kneller, is one of the earliest and best likenesses, and belonged to one of his first patrons. It shows Pope holding a copy of the Iliad, the great work of Homer which he had begun to translate in 1713, and which was the basis for his early fame and fortune.

Kneller’s first version of this picture was done in 1716. It is almost certainly that referred to by Pope himself in his letter to John Carlyll; “Kneller”, he writes, “has made me a fine present of a picture”. In that same letter, written 6th August 1717, Pope writes of his desire to visit his friend, Thomas Stonor, a fellow Catholic, a neighbour, and one of the original subscribers to Pope’s translation of the Iliad. Pope stayed with Stonor at Twickenham in June or July 1717, and later wrote of the “gloomy Verdure of Stonor” Park, the family seat. Given that this picture was formerly in the possession of the Stonor family, it is possible that it was a gift to Thomas Stonor from Pope himself. [Wimsatt, p40.]

Pope enjoyed the dissemination of his own portrait, despite being extremely sensitive about the portrayal of his image. The present portrait type became a popular print after it was engraved by John Raphael Smith in 1717, but, in showing Pope as an imposing, upright, and handsome man, it strays beyond flattery and into deception. He was in fact severely crippled, thanks to the contraction of Pott’s disease (tuberculosis of the bone) in his youth, which left him with a hunchback, a marked face, and distorted limbs. He never grew more than four and half feet tall, and later wrote movingly of “this long disease, my Life.”

As a result, Pope’s portraits, like the man, are contradictions. Pope, a Catholic by birth, grew up in a world where he was forbidden to go to University, but became one of the greatest scholars of his age. In politics he was, probably, a Jacobite, and at first flourished in the support of Tories like Bolingbroke and Harley, but eventually prospered as a Whig, and became a friend of Sir Robert Walpole. And in temperament he was universally admired for his wit and easy company, but possessed the ability to alienate with ease, especially through his satirical works such as the Dunciad; he was a good hater. All this, though, is perhaps inevitable in the mind of someone who not only possessed arguably the most imaginative and creative mind of the eighteenth century, but whose life was a constant struggle against the circumstances in which he began.
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