Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Simon Harcourt 1st Earl Harcourt (1714 – 1777) 1774

Robert Hunter 

Portrait of Simon Harcourt 1st Earl Harcourt (1714 – 1777), Robert Hunter
oil on mahogany panel
18th Century
15 7/8 x 12 ¼ inches 40.3 x 31.2 cm
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Signed and dated l.r. R Hunter 177(4)

Without serious rival the Ulster-born Robert Hunter was the principal portrait painter of the mid- and later-eighteenth century in Ireland. The portraits that he painted during his long career - his oeuvre spans the years from before 1748 to 1790 – are plainly influenced by the painting of his English contemporaries but they display a distinct character, that may be considered characteristically Irish.

Among his earliest works are ambitious three-quarter length portraits with landscape backgrounds that at times been mistaken for early portraits by Reynolds, and during the same period Hunter produced small scale full-lengths that recall the portraits of Arthur Devis. The influence of Thomas Hudson, the doyen of the British portrait at the beginning of Hunter’s career is also discernible, as is that of Allan Ramsay and Francis Cotes.1 Nonetheless, the styles of these various painters are so wholly digested and absorbed by Hunter that his work is remarkable not from its amalgamation of these sources but from its consistent character. Hunter’s painting is marked by its sensitivity in characterisation, and from an unspoken intensity, in which there is wit but not frivolity, a common trait in Irish painting of this period when it is compared to the London rococo.

The suggestion that Hunter may have at some time visited England remains conjecture, and there is no supporting evidence beyond his familiarity with the leading London painters, and their work was, of course, freely available in the houses of Hunter’s patrons and at the printsellers’ where it was published in mezzotint. The possibility that he may have developed as a painter without the refinement of a London training perhaps explains how Hunter’s work retains undiluted the richness of colour and – especially in his employment of landscape backgrounds - the tenebrous otherworldiness that often mark Irish art of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Certainly Hunter was known for the depth of his knowledge of the arts of his native country, and was described by William Carey as a ‘walking chronicle of everything relative to the Irish artists and arts.’2 Simon Earl Harcourt must have been a patron very much to Hunter’s taste. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the two men would have found much ground for agreement on aesthetics. Harcourt during his period as Lord Lieutenant was an enthusiastic patron of Irish artists, and in addition to Hunter he also employed the Irish landscape painter Thomas Roberts. He did so from a position of critical strength, since he was well-travelled on the Continent – he lived there from 1730 to 1734 - and had been a founder member of the Society of Dilettanti at its inception in 1732. His cultural enthusiasm was matched by the attainments of his career in royal service. He had raised a regiment to serve with George II at Dettingen, and served as Ambassador to the Court of Mecklenburg-Strelitz for the marriage of King George III to Princess Charlotte and in 1761, and Ambassador Extraordinary to Paris in 1768. In 1772 he was promoted General in the army and appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His tenancy there was marked by considerable political ‘fixing’ to ensure the safe execution of the will of the Government at Westminster, but also by the considerable mutual affection that he enjoyed with his subjects, which did much to repair the harm done by the unpopular incumbency of his predecessor Lord Townshend.

Four portraits of Harcourt by Hunter are recorded previously, to which this exquisite small-scale example is now added as a fifth. Two head and shoulders portraits on the scale of life (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin and Viscount Harcourt collection) show the sitter in the same blue coat as the present small portrait; a full-length version with also in the Harcourt collection shows the Earl in peer’s robes – painted by Hunter’s English assistant William Doughty – whilst a further half-length portrait (formerly with Christie’s) repeats the NGI composition but shows the sitter in a red coat and waistcoat. No portrait on the scale of life is yet known which repeats the three-quarter length composition of the present portrait, which – along with its meticulous execution and the care with which Hunter has signed and dated the panel – may suggest that it is not an autograph copy but a one-off presentation piece. Even in the case of the small portrait, Hunter’s engagment with the sitter is apparent, and the animation and good humour that he conveys in Lord Harcourt’s expression illustrate Richard Pococke’s description of him as a ‘most amiable serious fine gentleman of good nature good sense.’3 Lord Harcourt died in September 1777 from drowning, when he fell into a well on his estate at Stanton Harcourt when attempting to rescue his dog which had become trapped there. Hunter continued to practise as a portrait painter into his seventies, but his popularity went into decline with the arrival of Robert Home in 1780. In 1792 he held a sale and exhibition of his works, which seems to have marked his retirement. He is recorded to have been still alive in 1803 and is presumed to have died at around this date since no further record of him is known. Strickland quotes WBS Taylor’s encomium in Fine Arts in Great Britain and Ireland in which the writer says that Hunter ‘took excellent likenesses and his practice was extensive; he was truly a gentleman in feeling, and had he practised his art at a time or in a country where the arts were better understood, he would have been very eminent in his profession.’4 The praise is well-deserved, but the implicit suspicion that true art belonged only in London is now a critical anachronism. The fact that Hunter – unquestionably by choice – remained in Ireland and immersed himself in the developing Irish School, despite having the talent to make a career in England, shows that he was dedicated to the arts in Ireland and recognised that they might have an independent existence from painting in London.
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