Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Hunter, 1789 

Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of John Hunter, 1789, Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
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Oil on Panel
18th Century
15 x 11 ¾ inches, 38 x 30 cm
 
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This reflective portrait shows John Hunter, a pioneering surgeon and anatomist, near the end of his life. He is seen seated at his writing table surrounded by specimens from his collection, all examples of his theory of systemic progression. Of particular note is the skeleton of Irish giant Charles Byrne, visible in the top right hand corner. This, amongst a great many other exotic biological specimens Hunter collected throughout his life, can be found today in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, which is named after Hunter’s elder brother and fellow anatomist, William Hunter. The bulk of John Hunter’s collection is today held by the Hunterian Museum in London, which is named after him.

Both brothers were part of the eminent tradition of great minds that Scotland contributed to Enlightenment thought. John was born in 1728, the youngest of ten children, in East Kilbride, Lanarkshire. Unable to find a vocation in Scotland, Hunter moved to London in 1748 to assist his famous brother at his school of anatomy. There John discovered his precocious skill for dissection but struggled as a teacher and lecturer.

It was only when he joined the army as a staff surgeon in October 1760, during the Seven Years War, that he began to display his surgical skill whilst working on wounded soldiers. Soon afterwards he began to find his own voice as scientist, focusing specifically on circulation. He made, for example, the first complete study of the development of a child, and proved that the maternal and foetal blood supplies are separate. His most important discovery was his analysis of the lymphatic system. He had a number of well know students, among them Edward Jenner, who created the first successful vaccine for smallpox.

In his lifetime Hunter’s contributions were recognised by the highest honours that could be bestowed by his profession; in 1776 he was appointed surgeon to King George III, and in 1789 he was made Surgeon General to the British Army. This portrait relates to Joshua Reynolds’ full-sized picture in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons. Reynolds was Hunter’s neighbor, in London’s Leicester Square, and sittings are recorded from 1786 onwards. The original picture was ostensibly completed by 1786, but was reworked in 1789 after Hunter had suffered an illness that required an alteration to his face. Reynolds’ first attempt at the portrait can be seen in an engraving of 1788 by William Sharp, and while it might only be a speculative exercise, on account of the scale of both the present picture and the engraving, this small picture perhaps relates to the earlier likeness. Although there is little documentary evidence to determine the extent to which Reynolds used these small scale studies – whether they were preparatory works, or ‘recordos’ for use by engravers and pupils – and the level of his involvement in their creation, the present picture was evidently painted in Reynolds’ studio, judging by the technique and highly skilled rendering of the details and figure.
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