'The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence'
Hardy, Pat, British Art Journal
'The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to
Scottish National Portrait Gallery 25 October 2008-1 February 2009 British
Museum 5 March-31 May
The exhibition 'The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence' set out a wide range of 18th-century miniatures, drawings and pastels. Clearly Georgian society was enthusiastic about obtaining likenesses. As the title indicates the show picks up the recent interest in the concept of intimacy as a corollary to the age of sensibility, and emphasises the intimate and private nature of these objects.
This is an ambitious show with a broad and questioning premise relating to meanings of intimacy:. Intimacy can be defined in purely physical terms of the objects in question: the portable nature of highly worked miniatures or the tactile quality of the coloured pastel. Or it could be a matter of how they were viewed, in that these images were often produced for purely personal purposes to give to friends and relatives as keepsakes and, therefore, produced by artists who knew their sitters in a social context; of of the nature of the draughtsmanship and finish, in that the drawings and pastels were produced speedily, capturing a transient look, a particular fleeting glimpse of character or circumstance denied to other media until the advent of photography; or more broadly by the general pose, composition, and expression of the sitters.
The sections of the show explored these various aspects: miniatures were addressed as a part of a connoisseur's tradition of art collecting while drawings and pastels were highlighted as images to be exhibited in their own right rather than mere preparatory sketches. The show assembled approximately 80 images from artists from Scotland and England between the 1730s to the 1830s and comprehensively explored a succession of categories of sitter from artist's circle, family and friend, client to self-portrait to the more celebrated and famous.
The show did illustrate the different factors which contribute to the understanding of such intimate portraits, namely significance of sitter, the interlocking relationship between artist and sitter, between sitter and recipient of portrait, between the commissioning body, sitter and artist, and between the public and the sitter. On examination these sitters fell loosely into two main categories: those the artist knew socially and those he (for the artist was rarely feminine in this show) did not, with the self-portraits sitting between the two in what appeared an interesting metaphorical examination. In the first category was, for example, William Hoare's portrait of his old friend Christian Zincke, 1752;John Linnell's Mr and Mrs Charles Harbert, 1826; John Downman The Way Family, 1815/7; while in the second were Richard Westall's drawing of John Ireland, 1795, and Richard Cosway's General Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson, 1809/10.
This even-handed treatment of types of sitter meant that conceptually the show engaged and finessed the notion of 'intimate'. So, for example, in the first section 'intimate' was referenced with regard to the use of the miniature, held around the body, hidden away, a private memory. Fascinating insights into the lives behind the painted images were revealed but when many of the sitters were unknown the actual process and meaning of the portrait was subsumed within the function of the miniature at this time. Likewise for drawings and pastels it was salutary to be reminded that many of these drawings were of sufficient quality to be exhibited at the Royal Academy as many were produced as personal gifts from artist to sitter as acts of friendship or love, or created to satisfy a growing domestic market for informal likenesses but more details would be helpful in establishing any intimacy of relationship between artist and sitter. …