Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Young Boy in a feathered hat 1735c.

Bartholomew Dandridge 

Portrait of a Young Boy in a feathered hat, Bartholomew Dandridge
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches 91.8 x 71.8 cm
Possibly Christie’s November 1st 1968 (lot 58) as Terbrugghen sold for £315
Among Dandridge’s portraits of children, this is one of the most engaging because the least formal. Like William Hogarth, whose work Dandridge’s sometimes resembles, Dandridge is able to suggest strength of character, and individualism and humour in his child sitters, without creating miniature adults or mere ciphers of their social dignity. In the depiction of young sitters who may have possessed more social importance, as in his Portrait of James Brydges Lord Carnavon later 3rd Duke of Chandos and Lady Caroline Brydges later Lady Caroline Leigh (Richard Green Galleries, London) Dandridge invests his subjects with a degree of preternatural dignity, but the formality of the stiff figures in their adult costume – the boy is even wearing a wig - is subverted by luscious rococo foliage and the presence of their family pets1. And like Portrait of a Young Boy in a feathered hat, the portrait of the Brydges children serves to illustrate the qualities that patrons valued in Dandridge over those painters who recycled the idiom of the previous generation with decreasing success and invention. Other group portraits illustrate this same interest in an accurate and sympathetic depiction of childhood. In The Ladies Elizabeth, Jane and Juliana Noel c.1740 (Manchester City Art Gallery) the dignity of the young sitters – the three eldest daughters of the 4th Earl of Gainsborough – is suggested by the scope of the composition and by the suggestion of their father’s house in the background, but the theme of the painting with flower garlands and pet lambs is as light-hearted as any supper-box subject from the brush of Francis Hayman. Portrait of a Young Boy in a feathered hat does not approach such heights of aristocratic fantasy, and it is probable that the sitter is not the son of a nobleman. Instead, the glimpse of childhood becomes yet more immediate than in the previous works. His dress is the conventional costume of a boy in the mid-eighteenth century, and the feathered cap, which initially appears to be an item of artist’s fancy dress, occurs sufficiently often in British painting to be construed as an item of everyday wear. Women at this date are often portrayed with a porte-crayon, since drawing was considered a desirable and improving accomplishment – the Countess of Burlington, for example, was instructed in drawing by William Kent during the time that he was her husband’s architectural collaborator – and children too were taught how to be proficient in the art. Excessive competence might be undesirable, but it was considered useful if a gentleman could give some guidance to his architects by sketches, or be able to record the sculpture and buildings that he witnessed on a Grand Tour. When George Vertue, like Dandridge a former pupil of Sir Godfrey Kneller and an exponent of his style, remarked that Dandridge had ‘arriv’d to great skill in painting chiefly portraiture. with true spirit. graceful actions. Just & natural likeness well color’d. & a great variety of agreeable dispositions. lines drawn firmly with a masterly freedom of pencil. his designes not borrow’d commonly from others but from Nature’1 he might have been referring to the present painting so perfectly does it exemplify the finer points of Dandridge’s style. The boy in this portrait is, of course, posed in an attitude intended to show off the painter’s easy grasp of the rococo’s fluid lines, a gentle contrapposto that traces a sinuous curve from the nodding feather in his hat, through the alert turn of his head to the torso and then away again at the legs. The left arm gripping the thigh serves to anchor the boy to his seat, lest so much movement be overwhelming and implausible. This restless movement underlies many of Dandridge’s most successful compositions: it gives the obese and unpromising William Kent a surprisingly debonair aspect and imbues the equestrian portrait of Frederick Prince of Wales with a brisk, martial authority (both portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, London). Dandridge had studied in the Academy established by Kneller at his house in Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, and it was from Sir Godfrey Kneller that he inherited his broad conception of the figure, in its essential dignity and solidity. Like the more accomplished of the graduates from that Academy, however, men such as John Vanderbank, Joseph Highmore or William Hogarth, Dandridge adapted the basic idiom according to the dictates of his own taste, and produced a unique and distinctive mode of expression. His own inclination, as this portrait demonstrates, is toward ‘a broader, great manner a full and free pincill with a light easy design.’2 This portrait, much of which retains the character of a sketch, shows how Dandridge adapted the solid, Augustan manner of late Kneller paintings to accommodate the new, lighter spirit of the rococo. This lesson began to be learned by Dandridge and his contemporaries when they explored the form of the small-scale conversation piece, in which Dandridge could experiment with ‘great Variety & much fine invention.’3 whilst older contemporaries, the three surviving ‘Old Masters’ in Vertue’s phrase of the previous generation, Richardson, Dahl and Jervas continued to produce works on the scale of life executed – as in Richardson’s case – in a ‘more Sedate and greater stile,’4 even to the extent of increasing the canvas on which the life-size figure would be represented. The greatest test of the success of Dandridge’s adoption of the lighter, more fluid idiom of the rococo may be found in the calibre of his patrons. By 1730 he had attracted the attention of Frederick Prince of Wales, the amateur par excellence of the sophisticated rococo, whose likeness in the equestrian portrait was considered ‘the most striking … yet done’5 and numerous fellow-artists and connoisseurs sat to him. George Vertue had his portrait painted by Dandridge, and so did the architect William Kent, the painters Peter Rysbrack and Pieter Casteels and in a conversation piece with the Dukes of Montagu and Richmond, the gentleman-architect and connoisseur the Earl of Burlington. Despite this highly creditable roll-call of patronage, it might still be said that Dandridge is at his most successful in the portrayal of children. In a period in which the perception of children’s character was perhaps itself in its infancy, Dandridge is able to suggest childish enthusiasm, high spirits and, essentially, dignity, without becoming solemn or condescending to his subject. The identity and provenance of this painting remain unclear. According to a stencil verso the painting was sold at Christie’s November 1st 1968 lot 58 as a painting of a young man in a feathered cap holding a tankard attributed to a Dutch painter in the circle of Terbrugghen. At some stage in its history, therefore, the painting must have suffered a considerable degree of overpainting to give it a Dutch seventeenth century character. The original, sketchy character of the work – to which it has finally been restored – may have struck an earlier period as unsatisfactory. It is fortunate, therefore, that the present time is more appreciative of works that give such an insight into the painter’s creative process, and in which the artist appears almost the create the picture in front of one’s eyes. The opportunity to study the very painterly qualities that Vertue singles out for especial praise, the ‘genteel spirituous invention design as free spiritious invention. design as free as life & quick as lightning,’5 is especially rewarding in this instance.

1. In a similar vein, Vertue (Notebooks III Walpole Society Vol. XXII 1933 – 1934 p.57) describes how in the subject of the (now lost) group portrait of Lord Burlington and the Dukes of Richmond and Montagu with other connoisseurs showed the sitters distracting each other from ‘studious amuseuments of ye Belles Lettres designs of Architecture. &c.’ by playing ‘Monkish tricks’ on each other.
2. Vertue Notebooks III Walpole Society Vol. XXII 1933 – 1934 p.55
4. ibid.
6. Vertue Notebooks III Walpole Society Vol. XXII 1933 – 1934 p.56
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