Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Benjamin Hatley Foote (b1713) c. 1725 1725c.

Charles Jervas (1675–1739)

Portrait of Benjamin Hatley Foote (b1713)  c. 1725, Charles Jervas
Oil on canvas
18th Century
48.5 x 39.5 inches 123 x 100 cm
This portrait was painted in about 1725, at the height of Charles Jervas’ domination of portrait painting in early eighteenth century Britain. In 1723 he had been appointed the King’s Painter – his status as Kneller’s successor seemingly assured. Furthermore, in 1725 he demonstrated perhaps the best example of his highly coloured, almost jovial, style with his only known self-portrait (formerly with Historical Portraits), which is a fitting testament to Jervas’ oeuvre.

Jervas was born in King’s County, Ireland, in 1675, but is recorded by Vertue as being Godfrey Kneller’s assistant in London by the 1690s. At this time Kneller’s studio was the closest thing England had to an academy of art. Jervas’ early and obvious proficiency soon earned him enough money to embark on the then essential ‘grand tour’, taking in Paris and Rome, where he became a voracious copyist of the old masters. It is in Rome that we first hear of the confident bombast that gained him both admiration and criticism on his return to London in 1708; ‘Poor little Tit!’, Jervas remarked having completed a fine copy of a Titian, ‘How he would stare!'' And yet, Jervas’ self-confidence must have been deserved, for Tatler remarked in 1709 that he was ''the last great painter Italy has sent us''. He easily gained the patronage of many of the ruling and intellectual elite, most notably Sir Robert Walpole and Alexander Pope, whom he taught to paint. While Jervas admitted his lack of confidence in drawing he was particularly admired for his fresh and bold use of colour, not least in drapery and costume, which can be seen in the rich blue velvet of this example.

In this portrait Jervas presents his own answer to the curious challenge of child portraiture. Should an artist portray children as miniature adults, as did Van Dyck, or should he strip away the premature impositions of society life, and allow children to express the innocence of their youth, as did Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds? In this example, Jervas has decisively placed Benjamin Hatley Foote (then only twelve) as a gentleman of the latest fashion, with a sword by his side, surveying his estates with an almost Augustan presence. Only the playful attention of a small dog suggests anything less than patrician dignity. It is possible, however, that Jervas’ presentation of Foote was dictated by the sitter’s parents, Francis Foote and Mary Hatley. The former was of gentle, but impoverished, descent, while the latter was the sole heir of Benjamin Hatley, and the last of a wealthy and ancient family from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. This portrait, therefore, would be a typical product of such a union, and also of the rigid British practice of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son inherits everything: here, the proud heir and first of a new line of Hatley Footes (who later became a patron of Romney’s) is portrayed with the soon-to-be-his family estates behind him. We can only wonder how his two younger brothers, John and Francis, were painted, if at all. Both became vicars.
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