The earliest supposed likeness of one of the greatest writers in English, and the embodiment of the elusiveness or otherwise of the historical Swift, this remarkable portrait comes to market by direct descent from Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore, who acquired it in 1801 as ‘a small portrait of Dean Swift’, and is now offered for sale for the first time in 200 years, with documented provenance to the late 18th century.
First exhibited at South Kensington in 1867, for the next century it drifted in and out of public view. In 1898 Leslie Stephen, writing in the Dictionary of National Biography, declared that ‘the present whereabouts of this portrait is unknown’. It reappeared c.1967 in the collection of a descendant of Percy’s and came to the attention of Swift scholars, at which point there first emerged an attribution to Thomas Pooley which is now current: ‘A portrait thought to be of the young Jonathan Swift), c.1682, is clear and direct in Pooley's early manner. The attribution is probable because the Pooley family married into the Swift family’ (Dictionary of Irish Biography).
The attribution to Pooley, and the longstanding identification of Swift as the subject, were on the occasion of the portrait’s exhibition at the National Library of Ireland in 1999 advanced by Bruce Arnold in support of the theory that Swift was in fact the illegitimate son of his benefactor Sir John Temple (1600-1677), master of the rolls in Ireland, and hence a more likely candidate for such a sumptuous likeness. Originally developed by Denis Johnston (In Search of Swift, 1959), this theory has been used to explain otherwise intractable ambiguities in Swift’s relationships with the two most important women in his life, firstly ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson), who on this view is supposed to have been the daughter of William Temple and therefore Swift’s niece, and ‘Vanessa’ (Hester Vanhomrigh).
Writing in 1993, David Woolley (q.v.), editor of The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift (5 vols, 1999-2014), presented several arguments against Swift’s being the subject of the portrait, chiefly that ‘The dress style is of c.1710. By this time, however, Swift was into his forties’, and that ‘The portrait style is of the school of Kneller. When Swift graduated, in the reign of James II, the dominant portrait style was still of the school of Sir Peter Lely’.
In 2000, art historian Jane Fenlon noted that Woolley had only seen the painting in reproduction, that his analysis contained no reference to the attribution to Thomas Pooley, who had various connections to Swift, and that the sitter’s costume is similar to known examples of academic dress from the late 17th century:
‘The portrait in question has a long-standing attribution to the painter Thomas Pooley. The attribution is sound in that the style and manner of painting compare well with other portraits by the artist. The age of the sitter, between fifteen and nineteen years, is appropriate for the years 1682-86, the time spent by Jonathan Swift at Trinity College, Dublin. The costume worn by the sitter would also seem to be appropriate to the period in question. Social and familial links have been established between the painter and the sitter. In art-historical terms, after such close examination of the evidence, a portrait with a long-standing provenance and attribution such as this one has a sound basis for acceptance’.
In a brief response to Fenlon’s article (published in the same volume of Swift Studies) Woolley reiterated a few of his original arguments while conceding the strength of ‘the Pooley connection’.
‘His life and works continue to vex as well as instruct and amuse his readers … Rumours and legends about Swift's parentage, alleged marriage, misanthropy, and madness started early and developed freely, not least during the Victorian period … His work has provoked strong responses from each generation of readers, and he is one of those writers whose effect on our minds and imagination will not go away. In the words of a fellow Irishman, who also believed that Swift was the founding figure in Irish political nationalism, “Swift haunts me; he is always just around the next corner” (W. B. Yeats)’ (Clive Probyn in ODNB)
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