Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Gentleman, wearing a coat with small collar and a cravat, his hair worn en queue 

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of a Gentleman, wearing a coat with small collar and a cravat, his hair worn en queue, John Smart
Pencil and watercolour on paper
Oval, 47mm. (1 7/8 in.) high
Reputedly by family descent to Mabel Annie Busteed (née Bose) by whom sold; Christie’s, London, 17 December 1936; Hans Berger Collection, Buffalo, USA; Fischer Galleries, Lucerne, 11 November 1949, lot 2918; Ernst Holzschieter, by whom sold; Sotheby’s, London, 19 June 1986, lot 36. Karin Henninger-Tavcar, 2002, as ‘Portrait of Captain Tonyn’; Private Collection, Germany.
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The finished portrait to which this preparatory work relates is dated 1772, although its present whereabouts is unknown. The finished portrait is only known from an old photograph, which seems to indicate, by a reference to ownership (A.G. Temple Esq.), that it was once part of a loan exhibition. Frustratingly, the sitter’s identity is listed simply as ‘a gentleman’.

The early life of John Smart remains shrouded in mystery, a rather surprising fact given his prominence as one of Britain’s most celebrated portrait miniaturists of the eighteenth century. Recent research by Philip Mould & Company has uncovered mention of ‘John’, son of Philip Francis and Ann Smart, in the baptism records of St. Anne’s Church, Dean Street, suggesting that he was born in London sometime before June 1741. His name then re-emerges in a list of applicants for an under-fourteens art competition hosted in 1755 by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in which the budding artist’s pencil and chalk drawings achieved second prize, only to be beaten by his future rival Richard Cosway. In 1756 Smart became an apprentice to William Shipley, the Principal of the Society located in St Martin’s Lane, where he secured first prize for his drawings in all three subsequent competitions, finally exhibiting his work there in 1762.

In 1763 ‘Mr John Smart of Dean Street’ and ‘Miss Marianne Howard’ married at Coleman Street Church and it is believed that the pair had three daughters: the first, Maria-Sophia, possibly died prematurely, Anne-Maria and finally Sophia, with the artist fathering two further children, John Smart Junior and Sarah, both of whom were illegitimate. His early successful years working in London, from his premises in Dean Street, Soho, instilled him with confidence and ambition, and having built a loyal client base [Mrs. Russell, 1781, Edgar Corrie, 1775, both previously with Philip Mould & Company] was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Artists (FSA) in 1765, then director in 1772, Vice-President in 1777, and finally President in 1778, a position he held until the society’s liquidation.

In 1785 Smart left for Madras, India in pursuit of superior fame and fortune, accompanied by his wife Anne-Maria and joined by Sophia his daughter. Smart was aware that the prosperous merchants, British aristocrats and officials, as well as Indian courtiers such as Muhammad Akli Khan, Prince of the Carnatic, previously with Philip Mould & Company, presented abundant demand for his small, portable portraits. His delicate and meticulous style, although more restrained than the virtuoso style of Cosway, soon won him celebrity for remarkable clarity and naturalism whilst retaining an unmistakable generality of appearance which became so symptomatic of his style. His detailed anatomical knowledge combined with the fineness of his brushstrokes, often achieved using a single hair in a brush, generated a distinctive, almost photographic, end result. He worked in India for ten years producing a significant corpus of work and in the later years of Smart’s career on the Indian sub-continent, began to paint larger ivory miniatures in cut gold frames, using a more muted palette with less use of the jewel-bright tones so prevalent in his 1770s and 1780s works, for example Miss Byron, [Philip Mould & Company].

Following the death of his youngest daughter and his wife leaving him for another man, Smart returned to his London residency in Mayfair in December 1795 and rapidly re-established himself, honing his style industriously to produce both oils and sketches to satisfy his impressive client base, who now favoured the latest Neoclassical tastes. In 1804 he moved to the affluent Fitzrovia and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy right up until his death, following a short illness, on 1st May 1811 at the age of seventy.
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