Distinguished by an extremely delicate and meticulous technique, John Smart is regarded as one of Britain’s leading miniature painters during the 18th and early 19th century. His artistic training with William Shipley, a founder of the Royal Society of Arts, gave him a deep knowledge of anatomy and earned him repute as an accomplished draughtsman and artist. Unlike his contemporaries, Smart drifted away from idealised representations and opted for a far more honest portrayal of his sitters. A highlight of our next Fine Furniture & Works of Art auction on 04 July in Edinburgh will be this fine example of Smart’s artistic skill on ivory, thought to depict the clergyman William Elliot. Educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, William Elliot was ordained into the Chapel Royal St. James in Westminster, sometime after this miniature was painted, in 1796.
Some of the earliest examples of portrait miniatures date to the 1520s, originating in the French and English courts. Initially produced as watercolours on vellum, the 18th century marked a significant shift towards a preference for an ivory support. Bernard Lens was the first portrait miniaturist in Britain to experiment with this. Selt-taught, Lens quickly gained recognition from leading artists such as William Hogarth and George Vertue, and obtained numerous commissions within the courts of George I and George II.
Lot 88 illustrates Lens’ ability to produce a natural likeness of the sitter despite the challenges that working on ivory presented. Being a naturally oily surface, ivory does not lend itself well to water-based paints. Nevertheless, it was a luxurious material and one which was popular amongst wealthy patrons. By the late 18th century artists had refined their technique considerably; ivory could be cut very thinly and the surface scraped and smoothed with various tools to eliminate excess grease. Yet even with this improvement, the difficultly of using watercolours was still present and it required great skill to achieve the polished finish desired by clients.
Richard Cosway and John Smart are both considered the leading miniaturists of the Regency period, yet their style and technique could not be more different. Cosway’s sitters are always conveyed with an enhanced sense of flattery; the eyes in particular were often enlarged and the brushwork tends to be more expressive, creating an almost dream-like appearance. Together with a delicate pastel palette, Cosway’s miniatures enchant the viewer with their beauty and idealism.
By contrast, Smart’s controlled approach allowed for highly naturalistic renderings of individuals. Far removed from the fluidity of Cosway’s brushwork, Smart employed careful strokes of colour densely applied on the surface; a technique known as stippling. This is best illustrated in the face of William Elliot: layers of greyish-blue hues under the warmth of rosy-pink tones subtly suggest a light stubble. The eyes are also elaborately worked with layers of warm flesh tones; darker flecks of paint in amongst this are used to convey his ageing wrinkles. Highlights on the face were often created by deliberately scraping away fine lines on the surface, leaving an area of ivory free of any paint. The result is a photographic likeness which won him several commissions in London and India, where he travelled extensively from 1788 to 1797.
The reverse of this miniature is particularly interesting: containing an intricate seed pearl mourning memorial set within a weeping willow backdrop. The memorial is clearly the work of a skilled hand and it is likely this was completed by a jeweller adept to working with such materials. Mourning jewellery was popular in the 17th century and was worn as an open display of one’s grief in an act of remembrance. In this example, the ornate decoration almost certainly alludes to the wealth of the sitter. The inclusion of a lock of hair was also very common in portrait miniatures. Viewed as a powerful symbol of life, for the original owner this portrait would have served as an intimate reminder of a loved one.