Mar 202017

TG1Sad to see that some nutter with a screw-driver has slashed the canvas painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1785, generally known as ‘The Morning Walk’. The other title is ‘Mr and Mrs Hallett’ – slightly inaccurately, as the couple had not, at the time of the painting, celebrated their nuptials. The National Gallery describe the painting as representing  “an elegant young couple strolling through a woodland landscape, an attentive dog at the lady’s heel. William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen were … due to be married in the summer of 1785, shortly after the painting was completed.”

The site continues “William is in a black, silk velvet frock-suit. His apparent carelessness is actually a studied pose. The undone jacket and with one hand tucked into it is a stance seen in many fashionable 18th-centry informal portraits (known as conversation pieces).

If the report in the Daily Mail is anything to go by, the portrait is famous because it features in the background to the scene in Skyfall, where  James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, sits on a bench in Room 34 at the National Gallery. Funny that, I always thought that it had been famous for  many years before James Bond came along…Room 34

Anyway, as a fan of Gainsborough I am saddened to see that the painting has been damaged and hope it will not be long before the necessary repairs can be effected. The painting has had a fairly chequered history – it was bought by Sir N M Rothschild (later Lord Rothschild) in 1884. A subsequent Lord Rothschild then flogged it to the National Gallery in 1954  for the sum of £30,000 with the purchase being aided by a grant from the Art Fund. Nowadays I imagine that it is worth many millions…..

I have always liked the painting, and can do no better than repeat the description on a site known as the Web Gallery of Art:  ” It was surely Gainsborough’s inclination to interpret a formal marriage portrait, for which the sitters probably sat separately, as a parkland promenade. William Hallett was 21 and his wife Elizabeth, née Stephen, 20 when they solemnly linked arms to walk in step together through life. A Spitz dog paces at their side, right foot forward like theirs, as pale and fluffy as Mrs Hallet is pale and gauzy. Being only a dog with no sense of occasion he pants joyfully hoping for attention. The parkland is a painted backdrop, like those of Victorian photographers, yet it provides a pretext for depicting urban sitters in urban finery as if in the dappled light of a world fresh with dew. ”


Feb 062017

Hone 3I have always been a fan of Nathaniel Hone. The Elder that is. Why? Not altogether sure really – for not being The Younger; for being Irish; for being extremely rude to that big-head from Plymouth, Joshua Reynolds; for having the guts to hold (a successful) one man show when the Royal Academy fell out with him – and for painting some rather fine portraits. What other reasons do you need?

When I was choosing images to use for my book “In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire” I was delighted to be able to use the Nathaniel Hone portrait of the courtesan Kitty Fisher – complete with its double rebus of the cat (ie Kitty) having designs on the goldfish in the bowl (hence, Fisher). It has the added message that Kitty Fisher herself lived her life inside a goldfish bowl, constantly on public view, and reflected just below the rim of the bowl you can see the figures of people staring in from the window at the scene being painted by the artist.The original is in the National Portrait Gallery, so thanks to them for the use of the image:

Hone I, Nathaniel; Kitty Fisher; National Portrait Gallery, London;

I blogged about Hone here – and by chance after an interval of a couple of years I have had a response from someone who saw the blog and needs help identifying the subject of two portraits they were fortunate enough to have acquired at auction – and which are now found to have the signature of ‘N Hone’ and the date of 1742. But who are the subjects of these paintings?

Nat left Ireland in his early twenties, got married  and eventually came to London in around 1742 but I do not have an exact date. Does anyone know when he actually left Ireland?  And is it too fanciful to think that he may have painted the portraits of his Mum and Dad, before he left home, as mementos? Other than that his father was a Dutch merchant who had settled in Dublin, I know nothing of his family background. Has anyone any ideas? Here we have- the unknown lady:hone 1

And at the top of this blog post is the portrait of an unknown gentleman, painted in the same year – here, the signature and date:

hone 2

And if that is not enough of a conundrum, the same auction yielded one other surprise – a portrait of another unknown gentleman, this one painted by the Swedish-born artist called Michael Dahl. He was active in Britain between 1682 and his death in 1743 and he painted a number of members of the royal family, as well as various aristocrats. When Dahl first came to Britain he came into the orbit of Godfrey Kneller, and through him made a number of contacts and subsequent clients. Does anyone recognize the subject in this one?

Dahl 2

I will pass any suggestions on to the new owners of the three pictures – and I am sure they will be most interested to hear your ideas. Thanks!



Oct 072016

It is interesting to realize how long a ‘life’ these blogs have: a few years ago I did a post called ‘Isabella Beetham – shady lady (painter of silhouettes)‘ and just recently received an e-mail from Guy Dickinson asking if I could help track down a ‘missing’ silhouette made by Isabella and which profiled his ancestor  Barbara Fitzgerald. She was the daughter of a priest, and  as ‘Barbara Loftie’ had been born in 1768. She eventually went out to India with her family.  There she married Mr Fitzgerald, who had links with the East India Company.  Eventually they returned to England, and Barbara died in 1847.

I say ‘missing’ – it was more a case that the family knew that there was a silhouette in existence but had no idea what it looked like or who owns it. I was able to track down a reference to an unspecified auction of a possible silhouette which took place in the year 2000 but had no idea which auction house was involved. Perseverance paid off and it turned out to be Bonhams – and lo and behold the auction catalogue is still available for purchase. So, I was delighted to be able to point Guy in the right direction. He has kindly lent me the catalogue, and this is the profile of his 4xgreat grandmother:


The Bonhams catalogue states that the silhouette was three and a half inches high (88mm to be precise…) and from what I can gather went for the not unreasonable price of £180. Mind you that was sixteen years ago and some of Isabella’s work sells for ten times that amount. The image is described as being made circa 1795 “profile to the right, wearing bandeau in her curled hair, decollete dress with double frilled collar, with tied laces at her corsage and necklace.”

As with many of Isabella’s silhouettes of the 1790’s it was painted on to glass (in this case convex) and backed with wax – whereas her earlier silhouettes were cut out onto blackened paper. By 1785 Isabella had acquired sufficient skill as a painter – having been trained by the miniaturist John Smart – to open her own studio at 27 Fleet Street and there the clamouring public could have their likenesses prepared with the brush strokes applied direct onto either glass or plaster. Isabella used stippling and often dots/dashes to create the dress and hairstyle fashions of the day. She never made a fortune – her estate was worth some £200 when she died in 1825, perhaps the equivalent of £15,000 today. Nevertheless, Isabella was probably the first woman to have been able to make a living from  producing silhouettes. At least she didn’t have to rely on an income  from her husband, who patented a design for a wooden roller for the new-fangled washing machines which were just starting to appear. Pish! Washing machines, what a silly idea!

As an aside, these silhouettes were popular in the Quaker community – it was considered vain to have your own picture hanging on the wall, but a silhouette –  well, that wasn’t you, it was your shadow….

The catalogue shows that the Barbara Loftie Fitzgerald lot was one of nearly ninety silhouettes forming the Shirley North collection.  I rather like these two, sold as a single Lot but actually by different artists:

silhouette 88L     silhouette 88R








Some of the other Lots featured include some splendid profiles by John Miers, probably the most famous silhouette artist of the day. Here are his husband-and-wife profiles of Henry, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch and Elizabeth. She sports what is termed a ‘banging chignon’ (why don’t we see more banging chignons nowadays?) and a large outdoor hat adorned with feathers and ribbons, while the Duke  has his hair done in a fine queue and wears an open coat with a frilled cravat.

Silhouette57RSilhouette 2 001 - Copy









Another silhouette by John Miers made £1050 and is of an unidentified lady and made some time between 1788 and 1791. It really is rather impressive:

Silhouette Jn MiersMiers was certainly prolific. He had opened a studio in the Strand in 1788 and at the time of his death was believed to have amassed nearly 100,000 silhouettes – all of them as a result of 3-minute sittings.That’s a lot of minutes…

(My thanks are due to Bonhams for the use of these images – and to Guy Dickinson for nudging me into re-visiting this fascinating area of 18th Century art).


Sep 202016

I came across so many amazing miniatures while researching my piece a couple of days ago about John Smart that I thought I would include a few more, as a supplementary post!

First up, a couple of splendid Indian gentlemen – obviously painted during the artist’s ten-year stint in Madras.

An Indian Prince, 1788, shown courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum

An Indian Prince, 1788, shown courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum





A wonderful be-turbanned gentleman in all his finery

A wonderful be-turbanned gentleman in all his finery

Probably done in India a couple of fine army officers, the one on the right being a Major General in the East India Army. I am not sure about the rank of the other one but  they do look rather imposing.

Portrait of an army officer, courtesy of the Cleveland Art Museum

Portrait of an army officer, courtesy of the Cleveland Art Museum


A Major-General in the H.E.I.A.

A Major-General in the H.C.(E.I.C.).A.










A fine portrait of a lady with hr hair immaculately coiffed:

Portrait of a lady,  1782, courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum.

Portrait of a lady, 1782, courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum.

And to end with a miniature of the artist himself, a self-portrait which I came across on the site


John Smart self portrait.

John Smart self portrait.

John Smart – no small talent indeed!

Sep 182016

I have always been fascinated by the skills shown by 18th Century miniaturists, and was intrigued when I saw this one – it is unusual, because it  features a woman in a green outfit. Somehow green s not a common colour, but it suits her.Mrs Russell nee Cox by Jn SmartThe sitter was Mrs Russell, nee Cox, and the artist was John Smart. He painted the portrait in 1781 and used water colours on a piece of ivory. Leonora, illegitimate daughter of Lord Pigot, the disgraced Governor of Madras,was married to Claude Russell  and lived at Binfield Manor House in Berkshire.

John Smart, sometimes designated ‘the Elder’ to distinguish him from his namesake who was a Scottish landscape artist, was born in 1741 and died in 1811. He  first achieved prominence when he came second in a competition held in 1755 by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He was pipped to the post by the man who was to be his rival throughout his career, Richard Cosway. In 1756 Smart took up an apprenticeship with William Shipley, the Principal of the Society at his premises in St Martin’s Lane.  After that there was no stopping him and he won the next three competitions, and eventually exhibited his work there in 1762. Three years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Artists (FSA) becoming a director in 1772, Vice-President in 1777, and finally President in 1778. He was married, with three daughters, but also fathered a couple of children by his mistress Sarah Midgeley.

In 1785 Smart left for Madras where he spent a decade painting the great and the good, but returned to Britain in 1795 after his daughter died and his wife left him for another man. He operated from his studio in Mayfair and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy right up until his death. This followed a brief  illness, on 1st May 1811 at the age of seventy.

Smart-Lady-with-pink-hairHere are a few more of his superb miniatures. The first, on the left is shown courtesy of the Philip Mould site and features “a lady” wearing a lilac-coloured dress. She has her hair dressed in pink powder set off with a small white feather.

The one on the right, below, is of Robert, first Baron Clive of Plassey  and is on the Yale Center of British Art site, part of the Paul Mellon collection.


Clive of India

Many of the online images reflect the Indian connection – as here.

A couple more I like:JS1

JS2    JS3

and to end with, I give you …Elizabeth Taylor! She was born as Elizabeth Haughton and lived between 1758 and 1821  and again, her likeness appears on the Philip Mould site.


Aug 102016
Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, Frick Collection.

Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, Frick Collection.

In 1742 William Hogarth was commissioned to paint  a satirical piece about fashion for a slightly eccentric and forceful lady called Mary Edwards. She got a mention in a guest blog about Hogarth which Michael Dean did for me a couple of years ago, which you can find here. She had been born in 1704 and lived in Kensington. An  extremely wealthy woman, she had suffered at the hands of people who had ridiculed her for her lack of fashion sense – so for her, this was pay-back time.

Miss Edwards had reputedly inherited  a vast fortune from her father when she was 24. He was Francis Edwards, a wealthy merchant who lived in the Leicestershire village of Welham. It was said that she enjoyed an annual income of between £50,000 – £100,000, so it was little wonder that she was a magnet for fortune hunters of the day. One was a young Scottish nobleman called Lord Anne Hamilton (named, apparently, after his godmother Queen Anne). He was handsome, profligate, and at 22 was five years younger than Mary. No doubt she thought that he looked rather gorgeous in his uniform as an ensign in the Coldstream Guards. He was however an utterly unsuitable person for the wealthy heiress to fall for. In 1731 they allegedly went through a ceremony of marriage in the Fleet and the following year she gave birth to a son, Gerard Anne. The marriage was a disaster and when he showed rather more interest in spending her money than in attending to her needs, she decided to discard Lord Anne.

Lord Anne Hamilton

Lord Anne Hamilton

This was easier said than done, but she showed a resourcefulness which was rather remarkable. She  was determined to save her fortune for herself and her son, so she apparently bribed the Fleet chaplains to destroy all records of the marriage. She then placed a notice in the register of her local church of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington stating that she was a single woman. No matter that this made her son appear illegitimate – it was a price she was prepared to pay to offload the unwanted husband. I almost feel sorry for his avaricious Lordship.

I had nearly considered including him in the list of rakes and roués in my forthcoming book “In bed with the Georgians, Sex Scandal and Satire.” *               But somehow he was as much  to be pitied as loathed, so I left him out. There are, after all, others with no redeeming features whatsoever! Lord Anne was completely out-manoeuvred, because he simply had no evidence to show that they ever married. On May 22nd 1734 he accepted defeat and signed a deed returning all Miss Edwards’ property to her and relinquishing all further claims on her. So, she had regained her property empire, her stocks and shares and all her wealth, and when she died on August 23rd 1743, aged only thirty-eight years old,  she left her entire fortune to her son. I will refrain from suggesting that while he may have appeared to have been illegitimate, at least he was a  wealthy bastard…

Lord Anne went on to marry “properly” in 1742, sired a couple of sons and died in France in 1748 at the age of 39.

Mary was a frequent patroness of William Hogarth, and was  arguably the most important supporter that he had in the decade between  1733 and 1743. There is a report that she  purchased Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair, and as well as buying his paintings she and those in her social circle commissioned family portraits. Hogarth had  painted a conventional portrait of Mary in 1742, shown at the top of this blog,  in a rather splendid red dress and sporting some suitably opulent jewellery, and shown courtesy of the Frick Collection. It is an undeniably affectionate portrait, reflecting the close friendship between sitter and artist.

Then there  is this picture by Hogarth showing the Edwards family before the split. A detailed analysis of the picture, and the various constituent elements in it, appears in an article by Maisoon Rehani, Picture Researcher at the Paul Mellon Centre, here. I rather like the suggestion that the dog is actually baring its teeth at Lord Anne, while the small boy is washing a toy soldier – cleansing himself of his father’s military connections. Mary Edwards is reading the Spectator while resting her elbow on a pile of books, identifiable by their titles as being suitably educational for the young boy.

The Edwards-Hamilton Family on their Terrace in Kensington

The Edwards-Hamilton Family on their Terrace in Kensington

Hogarth had earlier come  up with this image of the young Gerard Anne in his cradle. It belongs to the National Trust and is on display at Upton House in Warwickshire. I can’t say I am a great lover of paintings featuring small babies, but there you go….

(c) National Trust, Upton House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mary’s son Gerard Anne (c) National Trust, Upton House

And so it was that in 1742 Mary Edwards commissioned this satirical painting, entitled Taste in High Life,  for the sum of sixty guineas. The version shown below is an engraving made  by Samuel Phillips in 1798, under commission from John Boydell for a posthumous edition of Hogarth’s works, but was not published until 1808.

Taste_high_lifeThe High Life shows two women wearing large hooped dresses, the one on the left with a huge uplift at the rear. The lady in the centre is almost certainly a parody of Mary Edwards herself, sporting patches/beauty spots, while her enormous muslin dress is decorated with overblown roses. She and her male friend are enthusiastically examining a tiny porcelain tea cup, while the man holds the saucer to go with it. The man is thought to be “Beau” Collyer, 2nd Earl of Portmore, a somewhat foppish example of manhood. He sports a ludicrously long queue in his hair, carries  a big muff and a tricorne hat under his arm, and his sword is tied up in his clothing, making his jacket flare like a skirt. In the foreground a monkey is dressed to the nines and is shown as a servant, using a lorgnette to read a list of items recently bought at auction. The lady on the left tickles the chin of a young be-turbaned black servant – reputedly based on Ignatius Sancho. His coat tails are so ludicrously long that there is no way he could stand and walk without tripping over… He may be a slave, but the ladies are also slaves – to fashion.

We can take this as a highly fashionable household of the day, one where the occupants are ridiculed for spending all their time and money on acquiring uselessly impractical ornaments while disporting themselves in clothing which not only looked absurd, but which precluded  free movement.

The impracticality of the  fashions is reflected in the image on the fire-screen which shows a lady trapped in her sedan chair, unable to manoeuvre out of the conveyance. Three of the pictures hanging on the wall are fashion plates, while the main picture emphasises the passing nature of fashion, with a cupid using bellows to burn a bonfire of wigs and hoops. The same picture also features a cut-away view of a lady wearing a hooped dress, in the style of a classical sculpture of a female standing on a plinth.

Beau" Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore

Beau” Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore

“Beau” Collyer was  famous for his immaculate dress. Born in 1700 he became MP for Wycombe in 1726 and represented  Andover between 1727 and 1730, when he succeeded to the Portmore earldom. Sir Joshua Reynolds did this portrait of him on the right when he was 58. He was particularly successful as a horse breeder, and was also a founding Governor of the Foundling Hospital, dedicated to promoting the welfare of abandoned children.

Hogarth never really liked the High Life and refused to allow any engravings to be made, so the one shown here was executed after the copyright had expired.  And just by way of contrast, let us end (on a bum note….) with a parody of how fashions changed – with a print made circa 1794. As it says, the left-hand image, taken from the picture hanging in the background in Hogarth’s High Life, shows “The Mode” in 1742 as a contrast to  “The Ton” of 1794. Together they are entitled “A section of The Petticoat –  or the Venus of ’42 and ’94”. Note that just as the hoop-skirt has been replaced with high-waisted narrow skirt, so the high-heeled shoes of 1742 have given way to the flat shoes of 1794.


*For anyone interested in my book, it comes out in the autumn and is available on pre-release via Pen & Sword here.


Aug 052016

I must admit I was familiar with a couple of paintings without appreciating that they were both by Henry Raeburn, a Scottish artist who lived between 1756 and 1823. He was  appointed Portrait Painter to King George IV in Scotland and some of his paintings are rather good. One of the paintings I knew was of the Skating Minister, which he painted in the 1790’s, showing the Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, and shown here:2 The_Skating_Minister Revd Robert Walker skating on Duddington Loch Quite splendid! Another one I am familiar with is the portrait of Sir Walter Scott, which he painted in 1822:

3 Portrait_of_Sir_Walter_Scott

What I had not appreciated was how prolific an artist he was, painting over a thousand pictures over a period of fifty years. Most unusually, he did so without following the well-travelled path to London, preferring to stay and work in his native Scotland for almost his entire career. He had started off as a jeweller, painting intricate images on slivers of ivory before moving on to becoming a (self-taught) painter of portrait miniatures.

He had a whirlwind courtship with a wealthy older widow, marrying her within a few weeks of their initial meeting, and together they headed off to Italy on their own Grand Tour, where they met up with Sir Joshua Reynolds. He persuaded Raeburn to study the Greats such as Michelangelo, and he returned from Italy after two years and acquired the skill to work in oils, largely by trial and error – in other words, without any formal lessons. Initially he learned by copying other paintings, but as he grew in confidence he dispensed with any form of preliminary sketches or rough drafts, and painted direct onto the canvas, while the sitter was in front of him. None of your Reynolds nonsense of painting the face and then leaving minions to finish the folds in the fabric. He did the lot, there and then.

He was highly influential in establishing a Scottish  tradition of portraiture, and was commissioned by many of the leading families of the time. I rather like the portrait of Alexander Dirom –  one of several he did of the Dirom family in the period around 1815, and shown courtesy of the Museum of Shenandoah Valley :

4 Captain Alexander Dirom

The Tate Gallery has this striking full-length portrait of  Mrs Downey, painted in 1787:

Mrs Downey c.1787-90 Sir Henry Raeburn 1756-1823 Bequeathed by Robert Dudgeon 1883

The light and colouring in his portrait of the two Allen brothers, boys by the names of James and John Lee, is particularly effective:

1 Henry_Raeburn_–_‘The_Allen_Brothers’_(Portrait_of_James_and_John_Lee_Allen),_early_1790s,_Oil_on_canvas,_Kimbell_Art_Museum

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, has this fine portrait of the rather well-fed William Glendonwyn:

6 William Glendonwyn

I gather that he generally painted men rather than women but the National Trust of Scotland has this one (left) of, Lady Sarah, wife of John, 13th Lord Sempill, painted in 1788. On the right is a lovely gentle  portrait of his wife Ann:

7 Sarah Raeburn


10 ann raeburn









Hey, love that hat!

One of the reasons for his prolific output was that he made a disastrous venture into the mercantile world of shipping – and lost a fortune. He was declared bankrupt but worked furiously to repay all his debts. Wikimedia have this portrait of Major Alexander Stewart, below left, and I came across his portrait of Margaritta Macdonald (Mrs Scott Moncrieff), which he painted in 1814. For someone who lost both his parents before he was ten, who taught himself  to paint, and made a living from portraiture which supported him throughout his life, I think he was rather remarkable.

8 9

Aug 062015

A look at a quartet of John Collet prints “in the possession of Carington Bowles” and published in 1778:

First up: Spring.

jc spring It shows a young swain sitting on a bench under a tree holding the hand of a pretty young girl. In her pocket is a piece of paper with the words “Let us Polly do so to.” On one side a young boy delicately plays with a bird’s nest, while below him in the foreground a magpie sits besides a basket containing five eggs. The man points with his hand to a pair of birds “playing lovey-dovey,” while an angry old lady observes the scene of the amorous couple, clenching her fist.

Next, Summer:

jc summerThe young boy is laden down with items, including the house dog, along with clothing he is carrying for the lady, plus patterns for her to put on over her shoes for walking through puddles. He has already dropped one. Three girls armed with a telescope look out of the window of the school where they are being educated (“Young Ladies completely instructed”) at a  a trio of naked lads swimming and posing in a nearby swimming pool.In the background a farmer atop a haystack is packing more hay onto the stack, while in the foreground cherries are being sold on sticks from a basket.

Here we have Autumn. It is the season of plenty, and the young man with a gun has shot a rabbit. He helps a young lady down the ladder where she has been picking fruit. His hand is ambiguously holding either her right hand, or her breast, or the ‘forbidden fruit’. The young lady’s apron  is full of harvested fruit, which cascade down onto the ground. A young black boy looks up at the couple, while appearing to eat one of the fruit. Behind him two girls are also picking fruit, while a man in the window smoking a pipe is cutting off  bunches of grapes growing on the vine.

And finally Winter:

jc winterA mother and her daughter wearing fur trimmed pelisses and carrying muffs walk past a warehouse called Messrs Frost, Snow & Co. A poster on the building opposite advertises a performance of The Winters Tale. Snow lies on the roofs and is piled in the street, although some effort has been made to sweep a passage clear, using a besom. One boy has slipped over, and another hurries in from the left, carrying blades which presumably belong either to a sled or to a pair of skates. A dog has stolen a  joint of meat and is eagerly devouring it.

The images are shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library/Yale Center for British Art.

John Collet was born in 1725 and became a pupil of John Lambert. He studied art at St Martin’s Lane. Many of his subjects have a Hogarth-esque quality and he often shows scenes of debauchery, drunkenness and immorality. Publishers such as Carington Bowles often produced engravings based on his pictures, and Collet developed a reputation for his humorous and sometimes gently satirical depictions. He was fortunate enough to inherit a large fortune when a relative died, meaning that he was freed from the financial pressures which dogged so many artists. He died in Cheyne Row, on 6 August 1780, aged 55.

Jun 182015

I tend to come across Wright’s ‘industrial’ images so it is good to be reminded of how good a portrait artist he was. Here is one on the Metropolitan Museum site. It dates from around 1770.


The site has this description: “Joseph Wright of Derby was the first major British painter to work almost entirely outside London. Most of his patrons were merchants or industrialists from the Midlands or members of the local gentry. This portrait of an unknown lady was probably painted about 1770, the high point of Wright’s early career as a portraitist, and is a fine example of the direct, descriptive style he employed—far removed from the artificial conventions favored in London society.”

I like it.

Apr 102015

a volcanoToday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now, Indonesia) – an  event which caused catastrophic damage not just in the Far  East, but to weather patterns throughout the globe. It led to what has been termed ‘the year without a summer’; to countless deaths and starvation; to crop failures world-wide   – and to the most glorious sunsets, inspiring artists like Turner to experiment with ever-bolder use of colours to try and capture Nature’s glory.

Sir Stamford Raffles

Sir Stamford Raffles

The first sign that a catastrophic event was about to unfold was on 5 April 1815, when thunderous explosions were heard upwards of eight hundred miles away. They were noted by Sir Stamford Raffles (the man who went on to found Singapore, and who gave his name to Raffles Hotel) and apparently  five days later ‘a sound like distant gunfire’ was detected on Sumatra, some sixteen hundred miles away. This incredible noise was followed by a massive explosion, estimated as being four times more powerful than Krakatoa, as Mount Tambora blew itself to pieces. Ash, rock, pumice and a pyroclastic flow swept down to the sea on all sides of the mountain , killing tens of thousands of islanders. A tsunami followed, causing more devastation, destroying homes and crops, and resulting in mass starvation throughout the Dutch East Indies.

What the explosion also did was to pump thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where the jet stream dispersed the gas over all parts of the globe. Fogs were commonplace, and snow fell in unseasonable times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, as temperatures plunged. In India the monsoon pattern was disrupted not just that year, but for the three following years. Again, this led to crop failures, starvation, and innumerable deaths from lung disease.

This global phenomenon was called all sorts of different things at the time – from  ‘the year without a summer’  to ‘the Poverty Year’, ‘The Summer that never was’ and the rather evocative ‘Eighteen hundred and Froze to Death.’ In Europe, the drop in temperatures led to the failure of wheat and potato harvests. Mass starvation followed, with the worst famine of the whole of the nineteenth century. Food riots broke out, grain stores were looted – and beggars filled the streets. Widespread flooding followed the heavy rainfalls produced by the abnormal climatic conditions, leading in turn to typhoid and cholera outbreaks spread by contaminated water.

For several decades the dust in the atmosphere gave rise to splendidly-coloured sunsets, captured by Turner throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s, as in these two:

J.M.W. Turner's 'Sunset over a Lake'

J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Sunset over a Lake’

Turner 's 'Sunset' from 1830-5

Turner ‘s ‘Sunset’ from 1830-5

(The picture at the start of this blog of the volcano erupting is actually of Vesuvius, by Joseph Wright of Derby, not of Mt Tambora; but then, Wright never saw Vesuvius erupting (it was dormant when he visited it) so I am using his imaginary view to represent Tambora. It appears courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California).