Sunday, 10 November 2013

Joseph Highmore

Self-portrait: Joseph Highmore (detail)
We who live in Melbourne are very fortunate to have on our doorstep the NGV's wonderful collection of portraits, thanks to the bequest of a substantial amount of money by Everard Studley Miller in 1956. That money has now all been spent, but it enabled the NGV over several decades to purchase "portraits of persons of merit in history, painted, sculpted or engraved by 1800", according to the wish of the donor.

The portrait collection includes works by such household names as Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Reynolds, but one of my favourites is Joseph Highmore (1692 – 1780), who is perhaps lesser known today that those luminaries.
Self-portrait: Joseph Highmore

His parents disapproved of his artistic leanings and insisted that he become a solicitor, but at the age of 17, he forsook the law and for the next 50 years he devoted himself to painting.  In 1762, Highmore abandoned painting, retired to Canterbury, and took up writing. He published articles on a variety of subjects, including religion, law and art. He died in 1780 at 88 years of age.

In his heyday Highmore was a highly acclaimed portraitist.  He is reputed to have captured the face of his subject in a single sitting, never retouching it at a later date. He depicted the texture and colour of fabrics with the precision of a Van Dyck, whose work, together with that of Rubens,  he studied when he spent two years in the Low Countries. 

Samuel Booth, Messenger
of the Order of the Bath

In 1725, he was selected to paint the knights of the Order of the Bath in full costume. He was also commissioned to paint Royal portraits, which highlights his high standing among English portraitists.

In addition to his more formal portraits, Highmore also excelled at "conversation pieces", or small informal group portraits, in the manner of Hogarth, although his work is less boisterous and satirical and more refined than Hogarth's.
Mr B finds Pamela writing

In 1744 he painted a series of 12 "conversation piece" illustrations for Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela, the runaway bestseller of its day. Pamela was the first epistolatory novel: a novel written as a series of letters and diary entries, a form which became very popular.

The heroine, Pamela Andrews, is a maid whose master (referred to only as Mr B.) makes unwanted advances towards her. She rejects him until he shows his sincerity by proposing a fair marriage to her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela attempts to accommodate herself to upper-class society and to build a successful relationship with her husband.

The NGV has eight pictures by Joseph Highmore in the collection: the one I like best, is a self-portrait showing Highmore as a professional artist – he is dressed in a blue robe, with a turban taking the place of the wig he would wear on more formal occasions. Through the dramatic lighting he concentrates our attention on his face and the composition leads the eye to his tools of trade, the loaded palette and brushes.
Miss Susanna Highmore

Facing this portrait, is a delightful study of his daughter Susanna, holding a miniature of herself. There is also a portrait of his son Anthony, in the rich red velvet and gold brocade.
Anthony Highmore

In Adelaide I saw a family group by Joseph Highmore at the Art Gallery of SA – his wife Susanna, with the two children. A number of Highmore's works were brought to Australia by a direct descendant of the artist. The NGV acquired most of them – I can't think why they let the family group slip through their fingers.
The artist's wife Susanna, with her
son Anthony and daughter Susanna.
(Art Gallery of South Australia)

However, we mustn't begrudge Adelaide their one Highmore: just in the next room, we have Samuel Booth, Messenger of the Order of the Bath, resplendent in his official robes. The three-quarter length pose is typical of Highmore. The figure looks down at the viewer from a commanding position. The large white wig  was de rigueur for  gentlemen of the era.

The NGV also holds four of the "Pamela" illustrations: Pamela Fainting, Pamela greets her father, Pamela and Mrs Davers and Pamela preparing to go home. The other eight in the series are held in The Tate in London and in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.