Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Issac Newton 1642-1727 1710c.

Sir James Thornhill 

Portrait of Sir Issac Newton 1642-1727, Sir James Thornhill
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
Newton first sat to Thornhill in 1709, at the height of his international fame, for a portrait commissioned by his friend Richard Bentley (1661-1742), a leading classical scholar and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Although Thornhill was primarily a decorative history painter in the Baroque grand manner, he did paint a small number of portraits - on one occasion working with Kneller for a portrait of Sir Christopher Wren in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Bentley wrote to Newton, 20 October 1709,

...hope my Picture at Thornhills might have your last Sitting, before you leave the Town: the time you set under your Hand is already lapsed.

This portrait still hangs in the Master's Lodge at Trinity.

In all, three portraits by Thornhill are recorded. The Trinity portrait depicts Newton three-quarter length turned to the left, in robes and with his own hair in front of a landscape background. His right hand rests on a table-cloth and his right hand is held to his breast. By depicting Newton not as the wigged intellectual in the formal academic tradition, but as Croft-Murray has described, the noble, Roman presentment of the aged, white-haired seer, He has produced a less conventional and more challenging image.
Our portrait was almost certainly the product of a second sitting, or compositional exercise, from which there is another, apparently derivative version in the collection of the Earl of Portsmouth.8 While still depicted in classical robes and his own hair, the pose of the Trinity picture has almost been reversed, as if reflected in a mirror, a device borrowed from illusionistic Baroque ceiling painting. This effect is further enhanced by the inclusion of the bases of massive, searing classical columns in the background and the strong directional light that illuminates the face. Correspondingly the pose of Newton's body is more animated, as he tilts his upper body backwards and his pointing gesture is more emphatic. The angle of his eyes has also been altered so that he now directly engages us.

In our picture, however, Newton sits on a red cushion with gold tassels and the bottom left-hand corner of the composition is blank. In the Portsmouth version there is no cushion but there is a table with two books resting on it, to the sitter's left. These subtle differences indicate that the artist was not merely producing a copy or version in the English portrait tradition, but following more the European convention of producing differing compositions from the same sitting.

The portraits were apparently completed by 1712, when our type had been engraved by Jean Simon (1675-1755) in mezzotint, as a half-length figure in an oval.9 In a letter to Newton dated 20 July 1712, Roger Cotes, a Fellow of Trinity College and editor of the second edition of Principia, wrote, ... / thank You for the Picture -which I have received of him [Bentley]: ''tis much better done than former; but I could have wish ''d it taken from the first of Mr. Thornhill''s. The former print that Cotes refers to is probably the mezzotint by John Smith, after the Kneller portrait of 1702. The first of Thornhill''s portraits must be the portrait at Trinity, of which there is no engraving.

The provenance of our picture suggests that it may have directly descended from the sitter's family. In 1744 one Sarah Newton of Nottingham married John Foulds of the same city. She was the daughter of John Newton (b. 1672) of Nottingham by Sarah Bridges and granddaughter of Robert Newton (1629-1702), a Barrister of Micheleover, Derby. The exact connection between this branch of the Newton family and those of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire has yet to be established, however.

A three-quarter length version is in the Royal Collection

Oliver Millar, Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures, 1963, No.363.
David Piper, Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Portraits, 1963, No.2881. Norman Robinson, The Royal Society Catalogue of Portraits, 1980, pp.222-9.
Elizabeth Einberg, Manners and Morals, Tate Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1987, No. 12, pp.40-1.
C.H.Collins Baker, Antonio Verrio and Thornhill''s Early Portraiture, Connoisseur, CXXXI, 1953, pp. 10-3.
ed. A.Rupert Hall & Laura Tilling, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Vol.V, 1975, No.767, pp.7-8.
Op.cit., note 5.
Illustrated: Country Life, December 25, 1942, Vol.XCII, No.2397, p. 1225.
Freeman O''Donoughue, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits in the British Museum, 1912, Vol.Ill, p.330. Wrongly described as taken from the picture at Trinity College.
Op.cit., note 6, No.929, pp.315-6.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.