Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Reverend William Atkinson (1724-1764) c.1760

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait of the Reverend William Atkinson (1724-1764), George Romney
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.5 x 63.7 cm
Mrs Maund, Boulogne-sur-Mer; By whom consigned to Christie’s on 5th February 1879 as ‘a portrait of the Rev. Wm. Atkinson by Sir J. Reynolds’, but not offered for sale; English Private Collection; Bonhams, London, 27th October 2010, lot 46, as ‘Circle of Nathaniel Hone, Portrait of a Gentleman, said to be Sir Richard Atkins’.
This newly discovered portrait is an early work by George Romney, one of the eighteenth century’s greatest portraitists. It was painted in about 1760 whilst he was working in Kendal in Cumbria. Romney was born in Lancashire but began to be based in Kendal from 1755, when he became an apprentice to Richard Steele. He settled there permanently from 1757, when he broke his apprenticeship with Steele two years early, and began to establish an independent practice.

Romney’s natural talent (he was largely self-taught) soon meant that he dominated the local artistic scene, and found it easy to secure patronage. Romney’s early works are very recognisable, not least because of their originality and distinctively broad handling. Few artists of the period could so easily portray sitters in the varied and often dramatically lit compositions chosen by Romney, and fewer still in the regions outside London. Nevertheless, the present portrait had lost its attribution by the late nineteenth century, when it was believed to be a work by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was recently sold as ‘Circle of Nathaniel Hone’, but conservation and research by Philip Mould Ltd has re-established both the sitter and artist.

Romney would have charged between two and five guineas for the type of head and shoulders portrait seen in the depiction of the Rev. Atkinson here. Atkinson, as a reasonably well to do member of society around Kendal, would have been typical of Romney’s patrons at the time. The son of Thomas Atkinson, of Ivy Tree in Blawith, William was baptised on 15 August 1724 by the vicar of Ulverston, the Revd Edmund Atkinson, no doubt a relative. He was probably ordained himself in the mid 1740s, for he was licensed to the curacy of Ulpha in December 1746, of Blawith in June 1747 and then of Kentmere in February 1748, where his salary was £6 a year. In December 1752 he became curate of Selside, just north of Kendal, where he remained, recording in a new parish register the baptism of his eight children between May 1753 and September 1762 by his wife, Mary. Atkinson died at his home, Low Biggersbank, in November 1764 at the age of 39, and was buried in Selside. His identity as the sitter of this portrait comes from a record in 1879, when the picture was briefly consigned to Christie’s in London.

We are grateful to Alex Kidson and Richard Hall of the Cumbria Record Office for their kind assistance in cataloguing this picture.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.