Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self Portrait aged fifty 1725 1725

Charles Jervas (1675–1739)

Self Portrait aged fifty  1725, Charles Jervas
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 124 x 101 cm
The collection of the Lords Digby; ?By descent Mrs J.D.H. Bankes.
Possibly Vertue Diaries III p12 Walpole Society Vol. XXII
This triumph of Augustan portraiture is the only known example of a self-portrait by Jervas, and, curiously, the only oil portrait of the painter. Until this painting was recognised as a self-portrait, the sole recorded likeness of this celebrated Irish-born portrait painter was a profile engraving by John Van der Gucht, which appeared in the frontispiece of the catalogue to Jervas's posthumous sale in 1740 (fig. 1). The likeness in the present portrait accords well with that in the engraving, and both display the same rather Roman hair worn without a wig, the length of which sadly obscures the ears of which Jervas was so proud. It is impossible, therefore, to substantiate the painter's boast to the Countess of Bridgewater, when he remarked: ''I cannot help telling your ladyship that you have not a handsome ear.'' When Lady Bridgewater asked what constituted a handsome ear, the painter raised his cap to reveal his own.

It is characteristic of Jervas that his self-portrait should be such a bombastic image, lacking entirely the slender, ''fan-painting'' quality that Vertue and Walpole remark in his other works. In its solidity, strength of drawing and magnificent colouring it is a counter to all criticisms of the painter, and must be considered an impressive example of early eighteenth century painting. It is notable that the brash colouring of the draperies that sometimes mars Jervas's painting -an overeager attempt to emulate Van Dyck- is wholly absent. Instead the figured damask of the armchair and of the painter’s gown is rendered with exquisite subtlety. There is a delicate interplay of contrasting shades: the deep green of the chair highlights the strawberry gown, and the draperies that form the background of the portrait echo the olive turned-back cuffs. All of this focuses the viewer’s attention on the painter’s ruddy and purposeful countenance. It is not a complacent face, but nor is it that of a man who is suffering for his art. It is that of a prosperous man in middle-age who has reached the summit of his profession, a precarious position not to be maintained without diligence and a vigilant suspicion of rivals.

Jervas whilst acknowledging an early weakness in drawing, regarded himself as a master of colour. When executing a copy of a work by Titian, Jervas looked from one to the other and remarked: ''Poor little Tit! How he would stare!'' Jervas had travelled in Italy, where he made a profuse study of Guido Reni and Titian, thrilling the Tatler on his return in 1709 as: ''the last great painter Italy has sent us.''

In October 1723, therefore, Jervas was appointed Principal Painter to the King. This association with the Royal family was not an unalloyed success, and the gloss of the association was tarnished by royal displeasure. The King and Queen both sat to Jervas, and in 1732 the Queen paid him the honour of visiting him in his studio at Cleveland Court, a princely courtesy familiar from the pages of Vasari and Bellori. Both, however, were reported to be unhappy with their portraits by him. Vertue records that: ''Mr Jervaise his Majesty’s painter has had no success in painting their Majesties picture & from thence he lost much the favour and Interest at Court.''(Vertue III 59) George II, however, was a notoriously difficult subject, and neither he nor his wife is known for their satisfaction in any of the achievements of their servants. Certainly this was no impediment to Jervas's career among the King’s courtiers. Death forestalled his eclipse by Jean Baptiste van Loo, and until then his patrons included the Walpoles, Spencer-Churchills, Pelham-Holleses, Townshends and almost every person of consequence in the Whig oligarchy.

In contrast, the Self Portrait represents a different and refreshing source of patronage, springing not from political consequence, but from friendship. The Digbys of Coleshill were not a family at the hub of government, although William Lord Digby''s son Edward had married the sister of Henry Fox Lord Holland; in fact Edward and his brother Robert were in Opposition and sat in Parliament for Warwick as moderate Tories. Jervas painted at least five portraits of the Digby family, including Lord Digby, his son Robert and niece Frances Lady Scudamore. These last two were friends of Alexander Pope - Robert Digby in particular was a constant correspondent. In this context, we must presume that Jervas too was a friend of Robert Digby. This is probable both from the extended commission to paint the family’s portraits, from his and Digby's friendship with Pope and, most particularly, from the fact that Self Portrait emerged amid a clutch of Digby family portraits. It seems likely that Jervas's picture was a gift from the painter to his friend, or a commission to record that friendship. It alone of the paintings is dated, but Robert Digby died in April 1726 aged thirty-four, and his and his cousin's age in their portraits would seem to date the whole series to around 1725.

1.The wording of the letter is largely illegible. The inscription can be read as ''….Neph/ Charles Jarvis.''
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.