Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of an Artist, possibly a Self-Portrait c.1775

William Doughty 

Portrait of an Artist, possibly a Self-Portrait, William Doughty
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.2cm x 63.5cm
Christies, New York, Old Master Paintings, 4th October 1996, as ‘English School, Portrait of an Artist’, sold $49,450
Hayward Gallery, London: 'Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now'. 19th October 2000 - 14th January 2001, as by an unknown artist.
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Before his premature death at the age of just twenty-four, William Doughty was widely regarded as one of the most promising young artists of his generation, and the best of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ many pupils. This newly discovered work of the mid-1770s by Doughty betrays much of Reynolds’ influence, yet also demonstrates, in its crisper handling of the drapery and sharp lighting, the neo-classical approach that was increasingly popular in London, as artists like Nathaniel Dance and Angelica Kauffmann returned from Rome carrying the influence of Italian neo-classicists like Pompeo Batoni. The subject here is unusual, and shows a young artist studying drawing after an écorché model. It may even be an early self-portrait by Doughty, for, as Dr Martin Postle points out, the likeness compares favourably with his self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The model on the desk is a reduced cast, presumably in bronze, of William Hunter’s celebrated anatomy model seen in Johan Zoffany’s c.1772 group portrait Dr William Hunter Teaching Anatomy at the Royal Academy [Royal College of Physicians, London]. Hunter had been Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy since its founding in 1768. Both large and small models of Hunter’s skinless model were studied by artists mastering the art of life drawing, and were in wide circulation after a wax modello was created by Danish-born sculptor Michael Henry Spang (fl.1750-67), and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1761.

Doughty was born in York and although his father was the keeper of a fishing tackle shop, he felt more drawn towards the arts, first trying his hand at etching before William Mason (1725-1797), a poet and good friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds, sent a letter of recommendation to the Royal Academy president. Doughty entered the Royal Academy schools on 8th April 1785 and lodged at Reynolds’ house in Leicester Fields, Westminster, for two years before moving to Cavendish Square in 1778.

Whilst living with Reynolds Doughty came into contact with numerous well-heeled patrons and in 1776 he exhibited an energetically painted portrait of the Poet Laureate William Whitehead at the Royal Academy [Victoria and Albert Museum]. Mason’s support of the young artist appears to have been consistent, and a tentative portrait of him was exhibited by Doughty in 1778 [The City Art Gallery, New York], which the artist then in turn gave to him. In a letter written to academician James Northcote, Doughty tells how Mason had offered to ‘send me to Rome as soon as I chuse after leaving Sir Joshua’, and although Doughty never appears to have taken him up on his offer, it is highly revealing of the kind of generous patronage which assisted so many young, often poor artists to achieve their goals. After Doughty left Reynolds he travelled to Ireland where he made acquaintance with the painter Robert Hunter, assisting him on a portrait of Simon, 1st Earl Harcourt before tackling his first known Irish commission; a portrait of Miss Sisson [National Gallery of Ireland].

As well as a talented painter, Doughty was also a highly skilled printmaker and in in 1779 produced a series of mezzotints after portraits by Reynolds. Reynolds was highly impressed by the prints and advised Doughty to focus all his attention on them, Doughty however purportedly felt quite insulted which was probably why he exhibited a ‘fancy picture’ of Circe at the Academy the same year in a bid to demonstrate his multi-faceted talent. In 1780 Doughty married Margaret Joy, a servant working in Reynolds’ household, and they soon decided to set sail for Bengal where Margaret had connections and Doughty presumably thought he would experience success as an artist painting in the colonies. Tragically however their ship was captured by the French and Spanish patrol vessels and Doughty and his wife were landed at Lisbon, where he died soon after of unknown causes.

We are grateful to Dr. Martin Postle of the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art for his assistance in cataloguing this work.
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