The Intimate Portrait – British portraiture at the British Museum

British Museum

The Intimate Portrait:
Drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence

Exhibition : 5 March > 31 May 2009

The first ever major UK exhibition to examine a fascinating but relatively unknown aspect of British portraiture

The Intimate Portrait explores the period between the 1730s and the 1830s – the heyday of British portraiture – when some of the country’s greatest artists produced beautifully worked portraits in pencil, chalks, watercolours and pastels that were often exhibited, sold and displayed as finished works of art.

Archibald Skirving


Archibald Skirving
Self-Portrait, 1790
Pastels on paper.
© Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Jointly organised by the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Museum, this exhibition of 180 works draws upon the superb (and largely unexplored) holdings of intimate portrait drawings in the collections of both institutions, as well as upon important private collections that have been placed on long-term loan at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Highlights will include masterpieces by Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and David Wilkie.

While oil paintings and sculpture dominated the very public art of portraiture which flourished in Georgian and Regency Britain, many artists were simultaneously involved in creating more private portraits for domestic consumption and display. Portrait miniatures painted in watercolour on ivory were worn as jewellery or displayed as treasures in cabinets; pastels with their fragile but brilliant surfaces were protected under glass and hung within gilt frames; while drawings were either framed and hung in family groups or kept in albums or portfolios to be shown to friends and family.

Until now, there has never been a serious investigation of these captivating modes of portraiture, and it has largely been forgotten that these smaller, more intimate portraits were also enjoyed by a wider public, and were exhibited in their hundreds at the Royal Academy in London and other public exhibition spaces in Britain. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s magnificent portrait drawing of Mary Hamilton, which will feature in the exhibition, was one of a dozen pastel and chalk drawings he showed at the RA in 1789.

Sir Thomas Lawrence


Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Mary Hamilton, 1789.
Graphite and red and black chalk.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Alfred Edward Chalon


Alfred Edward Chalon
Queen Victoria, 1837-8.
© Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Intimate Portrait will bring together works by around eighty artists, including many of the leading figures of the period, such as Richard Cosway, Henry Fuseli, John Downman, John Hoppner, the architect George Dance and the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Two Scottish artists, John Brown and Archibald Skirving, will be a revelation to London audiences and of particular note will be two masterly self-portrait drawings by the young rivals Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

The exhibition is arranged thematically to look at artists’ self-portraits and images of their families and friends, as well as their portrayal of the rising middle classes and the celebrities of the day. Well-known sitters include Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Lady Hamilton, the Duke of Wellington and the young Queen Victoria. Intimate portraits are revealed to be important indicators of contemporary taste and ideas of ‘sentiment’, particularly through the many portraits of women and of children. The exhibition explores how and why they were made, where they were displayed and, above all, their qualities as portraits that are ‘intimate’ in the multiple senses of the word.

Joshua Reynolds


Joshua Reynolds
Self-portrait at the age of twenty-seven, 1750.
Black chalk and stump, heightened with white, on blue-grey paper.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

    Other exhibition highlights:

  • Sarah Biffin, Self-portrait (1830) was born without arms or legs. Growing to a height of just over 3 feet, when aged 13 she was contracted into the service of a travelling circus show and put on ‘public exhibition’ for 16 years. She demonstrated great skill in painting and drawing with her mouth. In 1808, her skills were brought to the attention of the Royal Family and she was released from her contract. Her work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and her name was remembered in many literary works during and after her lifetime, most notably by Charles Dickens who mentions her in four of his greatest works. This is the first time this work will be displayed in London.

  • Chevalier D’Eon by George Dance (1793). D’Eon was a French noble, known for his prowess as a solider, diplomat, secret agent and scholar but he was most famous for being a flamboyant transvestite. After upsetting the French government, he was forced to wear women’s attire in public and he later retired to England where for the rest of his days he lived as a woman, even performing in public displays of fencing in full lady’s dresses. This portrait shows precisely what Dance saw, a man dressed as a woman with the medal of his knighthood proudly displayed on his chest.

  • Angelica Kauffman, attributed to Nathaniel Dance (1764–6). The drawing was originally attributed to Kauffman herself; the allegorical compositional type of ‘female artist as muse’ was one Kauffman used frequently in many of her self-portraits. She is staring fixedly at the blank sheet with the waiting crayon in front of her, caught in a private moment of introspection, unaware of the artist or anything except her relationship with her art. This work has never been exhibited before. If this portrait is by Nathaniel Dance, then it may have been drawn around 1764–6 when they met in Rome before her rejection of him as a suitor in London.

  • An eye miniature of Princess Charlotte by Charlotte Jones (c.1817). Princess Charlotte was the only child of George IV, married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. After two miscarriages, Charlotte became pregnant with what was hoped would be a son and heir. A difficult pregnancy was followed by a fifty–hour labour which resulted in a stillborn son; the princess died five hours later. These two deaths caused an outbreak of national mourning and ended the direct line of succession for George IV. The eye-miniature is remarkable not only for the circumstances of its commission as a memorial, but also as a very rare example of the identity of a sitter for an eye being known. It is also exceptionally unusual for an eye-miniature to be displayed on top of the hair of the sitter. Charlotte Jones was a miniature painter who studied with Richard Cosway and exhibited at the Royal Academy.

    The British Museum
    Images :

    • © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
    • © The Trustees of the British Museum


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~ by Stampfli & Turci on March 24, 2009.

One Response to “The Intimate Portrait – British portraiture at the British Museum”

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