Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A young Gentleman, wearing dark blue coat with black collar, yellow and blue striped waistcoat, his pink powdered hair tied with a black ribbon and worn en queue, 1800 

John Smart (1741-1811)

A young Gentleman, wearing dark blue coat with black collar, yellow and blue striped waistcoat, his pink powdered hair tied with a black ribbon and worn en queue, 1800, John Smart
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Watercolour on ivory
Oval, 2 15/16in (75mm) high
 
Provenance:
The collection of John and Vivianne Jaffe
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Original gold frame, the glazed reverse with plaited hair border, around sheaf of hair held with seed pearls and gold wire, the whole on a guilloché enamel panel.

Painted in the first year of the nineteenth century, this strong portrait of a fashionable young man demonstrates Smart’s ability to adapt his technique and presentation to move with the times. By 1800, Smart was settled back in his native London after a ten-year sojourn in Madras, India. There he had painted the most important and influential British settlers as well as taking commissions from Indians, most notably Muhammad Ali Khan, Prince of the Carnatic and Nawab of Arcot.

This portrait also shows the sitter with a pink tint to the powder covering his natural hair. It is known from advertisements that such coloured pigment was available to the newly appointed ‘hairdressers’ of the day, but it is extremely rare to see such high fashion depicted in a portrait. Smart appears one of the few artists to paint portraits showing this trend, his ability to render such detail extending to this relatively short-lived craze.

It was also during the early 1800s that Smart experimented with small paper ‘cabinet’ miniatures. Larger than the works he could offer his clients on ivory, these highly finished watercolours have all the precision of his portrait miniatures but were perhaps less expensive to produce in terms of material. They also followed a revival of interest in the larger watercolour portrait, as offered by Smart’s contemporaries including Richard Cosway and Henry Edridge. These may have proved too time-consuming for Smart to continue painting as very few examples of these highly finished works on paper remain. An example in the Victoria and Albert Museum portrays Miss Harriet and Miss Elizabeth Binney and is dated 1806 ; another example is with Philip Mould and Company and shows a lady called Mrs Abernethy, dated to the same year as the present portrait.

By 1800, Smart had a new patron who represented the wealthy merchant class – Sir Robert Wigram, 1st Baronet of Wexford (1744-1830), who worked his way up the social and financial ladder after beginning his career as a ship’s surgeon for the East India company. It is not inconceivable that the present portrait is one of Wigram’s sons from his first marriage (his oldest surviving son had been born in 1773 – one of a brood which eventually totalled twenty-three).

The sitter shares similar facial characteristics with Sir Robert, including the conspicuous dimple in his chin.
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