Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A Gentleman, wearing the uniform of a Volunteer unit, his blue coat with red lapels and wings, gold buttons and red and white collar 

John Smart (1741-1811)

A Gentleman, wearing the uniform of a Volunteer unit, his blue coat with red lapels and wings, gold buttons and red and white collar, John Smart
Zoom
Watercolour
Oval, 80mm (3 1/8 in.) high
 
Provenance:
Christie’s, London, 7 November 1988, lot 128 (as ‘Sir Elijah Impey’); Karin Henninger-Tavcar, 1994 (as ‘Sir Elijah Impey’); Private Collection, Germany.
Gold frame, the reverse with seed pearl initial ‘J’ on blue glass within seed pearl border, hair device and gold wire.

The present portrait has been sold at least twice as ‘Sir Elijah Impey’ (1732-1809) but he would have been almost seventy years old when this portrait was painted in 1799 and this image shows a much younger man. The sitter is most probably a member of a London Volunteer unit. Frustratingly, although Smart has painted the buttons with his usual exemplary care, it has not been possible to clarify the letters and numbers, although they may be ‘SPV’ for ‘St Pancras Volunteers’. The initial ‘J’ on the reverse is an additional clue to the sitter, the only potential officer serving in that unit in 1801 being a Captain Joseph Philip le Jeune, who was commissioned in that rank on 3 December 1798.

On the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793, most British counties raised units of auxiliary military forces as a reaction to the threat of invasion. While many units were disbanded at the Peace of Amiens in 1802, some were re-raised, and wholly new units formed, after the collapse of that temporary truce in 1803. There were many London units of Volunteers (‘Volunteers’constituted the principal auxiliary infantry forces), including the 6th Loyal London volunteers of whom Sir Robert Wigram (cat.33) was made lieutenant-colonel in 1805 and painted in uniform by Smart that same year. It has been estimated that, by the end of the 18th century, one in five adult British men were members of a Volunteer or other auxiliary unit. As can be seen in this portrait, and in many oil portraits of the period, this was an honourable role of which the holder could be proud. In 1799, the same date as this portrait, Thomas Rowlandson produced a series of eighty-seven engravings showing men of the various London regiments.

John Smart himself, along with his friends and many fellow Royal Academicians joined the St Pancras Armed Association in 1798. ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ of 1815 notes that the artist Robert Smirke was an able soldier, displaying ‘a degree of intelligence and promptitude, which, except in the regular army, has scarcely ever been equalled.’ Farrington’s diary records some of the events at this time, including a drill held in the house of the artist George Dance, followed by an Academy General Meeting. After the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, when a British fleet commanded by Nelson almost obliterated the French Mediterranean fleet, the threat of invasion was reduced and the artists were able to concentrate once again on their work.
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