Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Congreve (1670-1729) 

Garret Morphy (d.c.1715)

Portrait of William Congreve (1670-1729), Garret Morphy
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
Circular, 22 1/2 x 23 5/8 inches, 57 x 60cm
Collection of Dr Casimir Wurster, Strasburg, Germany; By whom sold at J. M. Heberle, Cologne, 15th-17th June 1896, lot.337 ‘Portrait des Dichters Congreve’ by ‘Adrian van der Werff’, (illustrated); Hahn, Frankfurt, 20th-21st February 1935, lot.31 as by Caspar Netscher; Private Collection.
Anne Crookshank and Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, The Painters of Ireland (London 1978) p. 24 and p. 287; Jane Fenlon, 'Garret Morphey and his Circle', in Irish Arts Review Yearbook (1991-92) p. 141; Anne Crookshank and Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, Ireland's Painters (New Haven and London, 2002) p. 16; J.C. Hodges, ‘William Congreve, the Man’ (Oxford. 1941) p. 57.
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William Congreve is widely considered to be one of the most important playwrights and poets of the Restoration period. As no less an observer than Voltaire wrote in 1733 Congreve raised ‘the Glory of Comedy to a greater Height than any English Writer before or since his Time’. Many of his phrases remain in use today, such as his line from The Mourning Bride; ‘Heaven has no rage like love turned to hatred, nor hell like a woman scorned’, which, in its modern form ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, is often misattributed to Shakespeare. Although born in Yorkshire, Congreve grew up in Ireland where his father was in service to James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and subsequently enjoyed the benefits of education at Kilkenny College that accompanied his father’s position. It was whilst studying at Kilkenny that Congreve first encountered Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift, and following Congreve’s entrance to Trinity College Dublin in 1686 at the age of 16, the friendship flourished under the shared tutorage of Royal Society mathematician Sir George Ashe.

It is not known for certain when Congreve left for England with his family, but it is thought that he may have done so in March 1689. Although his career trajectory was aimed more towards Law, his passion for writing prevailed, and between 1689-1691 he wrote his first essay Incognita (published in 1692 under the pseudonym Cleophil), as well as a draft of his first play The Old Batchelor, which, in 1693, was staged at Drury Lane Theatre for a long run with leading actors Thomas Betterton and Thomas Doggett in the main roles. Congreve experienced moderate success with his next play The Double Dealer, but in 1695 his third play Love for Love opened to acclaim at the Lincolns Inn Theatre, where it enjoyed another long run, and sizeable profits. Until this point Congreve had focussed his attention solely on comedies, nevertheless his first tragedy The Morning Bride, of 1697, was performed to great acclaim and remained a favourite during the eighteenth century. Following a verbal attack by pamphleteer Jeremy Collier in 1698 on the immoralities his plays, Congreve hit back with his masterfully written and less bawdy The Way of the World, performed in 1700. Although now highly praised, and considered the pre-eminent Restoration Comedy, in its day the play experienced only moderate success. By the turn of the century Congreve was shifting towards more musically orientated endeavours. Although never ceasing to write altogether, Congreve avoided any major new publications and instead indulged his interests in musical compositions, as well as editing and expanding his earlier published works into a Collected Works in 1710.

Congreve’s later life was dominated mainly by politics. He was a Whig (and famously a member of the Kit-Kat Club painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller [National Portrait Gallery, London]), but thanks to the support of his patron Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax, held a number of posts within the predominantly Tory governments of the day, including a post as a regulator of hackney coaches (modern day taxis) from 1695-1705, a commissioner of wine licenses from 1705-1714, and the position of Undersearcher of the London Port in 1714. Despite the additional income from these posts, Swift wrote that ‘Congreve scarce could spare / A shilling to discharge his chair’ – however, his financial situation improved when he was appointed secretary of Jamaica on £700 a year, in 1714. Congreve was suffering from ill-health from as early as 1692 including failing eyesight and bouts of cataracts and died in 1729, following a coach accident. Congreve was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his tomb has an epitaph written by Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, by whom he had an illegitimate daughter.

Although known to exist by scholars for some time, the whereabouts of the present work has always remained a mystery until recently, when it was discovered in a private collection. Although the identity of the sitter has always been maintained since the picture was first publicly sold in Germany in 1896, the identity of the artist has had a confused history, being identified as a work by both Netscher and van der Werff. However, in preparation for their monograph The Painters of Ireland (1978) Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin correctly reattributed the painting to Garret Morphy, and it was later included in a catalogue of works by Jane Fenlon Garret Morphy and his Circle (no.4)(1991). There are a number of links between Morphy and Congreve, not least the connection between Morphy’s most prominent Irish patrons and Congreve’s father, who not only worked for the Duke of Ormonde, at Kilkenny, but also the Boyle family at Youghal. Conservation, and the removal of several layers of dirt, varnish and later over-paint, has revealed a work of great finesse and clarity, not least in the vivid blue of Congreve’s cloak. It has not been possible to establish a firm date for the picture. It was probably painted shortly before Congreve left Dublin for England with his family in about 1689. The number ‘96’ on the page of the book is most likely just a page number, but it could refer to the year 1696, when Congreve was conferred with the degree of MA by Trinity College, Dublin. It is not known if Congreve travelled back to Ireland to collect his degree in person, but Morphy was certainly by then working more or less permanently in Ireland.

The reclining position of the sitter in the present work is a clear allusion to the Elizabethan condition of melancholy, when the poetic sadness of great Tudor men such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) were immortalised by the likes of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. The melancholic position adopted by Congreve is perhaps also an allusion to his Irish ancestor Timothie Bright (1549/50-1614) who, as well as being accredited with inventing modern shorthand, published A Treatise of Melancholie in 1586. Two other portraits, one of John Bellew, 1st Baron Bellew (d.1793) (no.1 in catalogue of works) and the other of James Bryan of Jenkinstown Park, County Kilkenny (National Gallery of Ireland), show similar compositions, but without the prominent literary allusion of the book.

Garret Morphy was arguably the first painter in Ireland to produce work to a standard comparable with the painters of London and Edinburgh, and to maintain a thriving independent practise. In 1673 he is recorded as working with Edmund Ashfield in London. This places him in a Roman Catholic circle of painters, as Ashfield had been an assistant of John Michael Wright, and it was from among the Catholic gentry and aristocracy that Morphy drew the mass of his patrons.

Morphy's travels up to the year 1694 - when he painted Lady Shelburne in Dublin - are not certainly known - but it is likely that he divided his time between England, where he was recorded from 1685-8, and Ireland. The fact that George Vertue never refers to Morphy in his notebooks is usually taken as proof that Morphy did not return to London in the 1690s. He made his will, describing him as ‘of the City of Dublin, painter’ on November 1st 1715, which was proved on May 12th in the following year. The only other near-contemporary reference to him comes with an advertisement in the Dublin Evening Post June 15th - 19th no.99 for a picture sale in Dame Street that includes ‘several portraits of the gentry of this kingdom done by the famous Mr Murphy.’

Although his tutorage is not known for certain, Morphy’s style proposes Gaspar Smitz as a possible teacher, but Morphy’s work demonstrates an eclecticism that shows he was susceptible to and aware of many influences in the London art world of the 1670s. Although he claimed not to admire his work, Morphy was also clearly influenced by the postures of Sir Peter Lely, which were widely available for copy either from the paintings themselves or from prints. The atmosphere in Morphy’s work, however, is his most conspicuous debt to John Michael Wright, and his paintings are often invested with the same intangible air of enchantment, and they convey to the spectator the same sense of bearing an allegorical interpretation that just escapes the wit of the observer to elucidate.
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