Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Hon. John Tufton 1776c

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of the Hon. John Tufton, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
56 x 44 ½ inches 142 x 113 cm
Painted for Sackville Tufton, 8th Earl of Thanet; By descent to Sir Henry Tufton, 1st Baron Hothfield; Henry Hirsch, his sale, Christies, 12th June 1931 Lot 18, bt. Thistelthwaite for 1995 gns; By descent to Eva Sardinia Borthwick-Norton, by whom bequeathed to; The Royal Scottish Academy
W. Cotton, A Catalogue of the Portraits painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA 1857 vol iii, p75 A Graves & W Cronin A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA 1899 vol iii. p991 Sir W. Armstrong, Sir Joshua Reynolds 1900, p223 E. K. Waterhouse, Reynolds 1941, p.96 David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2000, p450, no. 1776, fig. 1201.
British Institution, 1833, no. 36
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Joshua Reynolds’ career was not only celebrated in his day, but left a lasting influence on British Art. He was the first President of the Royal Academy. In his ‘Discourses’ he set a pattern for portraiture that was faithfully followed for over a hundred years. As with all great figures who dominate that which succeeds them, it is hard now to comprehend just how revolutionary Reynolds’ art was. His work, however, should not be compared to Lawrence and Gainsborough, or Watts and Sargent, but to his predecessors; Lely, Kneller, Jervas, and even Hogarth. Portraiture in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was too often stuck in a post-VanDyckian rut. Its purpose was depiction, and its practitioners confined by technical inhibition. It was, to Reynolds, a blank canvas, and on it he painted in the ‘Grand Manner’ of Italian old masters. Henceforth, sitters were no longer bound by the rigid structures and decorum of ‘Society’ – which in portraiture translates into repetition – for Reynolds’ technical mastery allowed him to place subjects in whatever pose, setting, or characterization he desired. The result was the complete reinvention of British portraiture. Recent restoration has revealed the portrait of John Tufton to be a work of pre-eminent importance in Reynolds’ oeuvre. A thick and discoloured varnish, which had for many decades obscured the true extent of this painting’s quality, encouraged the belief that it had suffered the same degradations in colour, depth and texture so evident in many of Reynolds’ portraits, thanks to his experimental techniques in mixing pigments and application of bitumen. After careful cleaning, however, it has become apparent that in this case the painting is in almost as good a condition as when it left his studio. The colours, for example, are so fresh as to be almost disarming, while the rapid strokes with which Reynolds has painted Tufton’s dog are intact in all their fluid sketchiness.

This portrait is an excellent example of Reynolds’ reinterpretation of portraiture, in particular the challenge of child portraiture. Should an artist portray children as miniature adults, as did Van Dyck and Holbein, or should he strip away the premature impositions of society life, and allow children to express the innocence of their youth? Here, Reynolds has allowed Tufton to dominate entirely his own setting. He is unencumbered by eighteenth century costume. His presence is not dominated by a family mansion or estate in the background. Instead, he wears a simple tunic, and only the suggestion of a classical sculpture in the distance stops this from becoming a subject picture. This is a portrait that allows the viewer to focus on the playfulness of youth, and, just as importantly, would have afforded Tufton’s parents a reassuring view of their child in the untroubled contentment of the leisured class, a picture of health and happiness.

A single sitting is recorded for the portrait of John Tufton at two o’clock on 3rd February 1777. It is likely, however, that other sittings took place in 1776 (for which Reynolds’ notebooks are missing). Reynolds had already painted his mother in 1770/1 (private collection), and two elder brothers c. 1766/7 (Petworth, Sussex). He had also painted his father’s mistress, Nelly O’ Brien, twice between c.1762-4 (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow & The Wallace Collection, London). Clearly, therefore, the Tufton family and Reynolds enjoyed a good relationship, and this may account for the familiarity evident in this portrait. Certainly, Reynolds has utilized here the full spectrum of his talent, not least in the depiction of light and reflected light on Tufton’s face, an effect which only Reynolds’ subtle use of glazes could achieve, and which is reminiscent of his famous portrait of O’Brien (Reynolds’ favourite model) at the Wallace Collection, London.

John Tufton’s fate as the third of the 8th Earl of Thanet’s five legitimate sons would ordinarily have decreed a career out of the spotlight – perhaps an army commission, or a comfortable Deanery. His eldest brother, Sackville Tufton, would occupy the family seat in the House Commons until succeeding his father, while Charles Tufton quickly took the traditional second-son route, and joined the infantry aged 17.

But their father’s early death in 1786, aged 52, upset the normal aristocratic career path. Sackville’s elevation to the House of Lords vacated the family’s seat in the House of Commons, and so, at the age of 23 John Tufton became Member of Parliament for Appleby in Cumbria, where the family lived. And yet, there is every sign that Tufton was unsuited to his new career. Though he followed the family’s Whig tradition (supporting Grey’s motion for electoral reform) and even joined Brooks’ club – the haunt of Fox and Sheridan – he made no speech in his three years as MP. His obituary, while stressing his intellect, wondered whether his “retiring disposition” would have allowed him to play an active part in politics [History of Parliament 1790-1820, ed. RG Thorne]. It is possible too that his matriculation at Jesus College Cambridge in 1798 suggests a new direction in his life. Tufton held the seat until his death in 1799.

All four Tufton brothers had a curious inability to breed. The Earldom eventually passed to John Tufton’s younger brother, the 8th Earl’s fourth son, who, dying unmarried in 1849, was the 11th and last Earl of Thanet. Though John Tufton may well have made a fine Earl of Thanet had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have had much money: his eldest brother Sackville (a rogue once imprisoned in the Tower of London) is reputed to have lost £120,000 in single night of Parisian gambling.
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