At The Portrait Painter’s

David Mannings describes how the painters of the eighteenth century conducted their studios and sittings.

In a well-known letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu concerning her sitting for her portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Alexander Pope wrote that Kneller ‘thinks it absolutely necessary to draw the Face first, which he says can never be set right on the figure if the Drapery and Posture be finished before. To give you as little trouble as possible, he proposes to draw your face with crayons, and finish it up, at your own house in a morning; from whence he will transfer it to the Canvas, so that you need not go to sit at his house.’

The unfinished portrait of Richard Boyle, 2nd Viscount Shannon, in the National Portrait Gallery, shows quite clearly how much attention Sir Godfrey paid to getting the face right before spending valuable time on the costume or background.

But this method led to some unfortunate misunderstandings, and it seems ironical that in the period which saw the greatest achievements of British portraiture there were many intelligent critics and artists who looked down on mere ‘face-painting’ as it was called, and considered it little better than hack work.

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