Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue: Berkeley

The following text is from the National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977 (now out of print). For the most up to date research on the Collection, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text. This can be accessed by following the link with each portrait’s title.

In consulting the following, please note that apart from the reformatting which allows the printed catalogue to be made available on-line the text is as published in 1977. Footnotes in the original edition are given within square brackets.

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George Berkeley (1685-1753)
Philosopher; educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he taught from 1707; visited England and Italy, 1713-22(?); Dean of Derry, 1724; went to America, 1728, failed to obtain government funds to found a college in the Bermudas, returned 1732; Bishop of Cloyne, 1734; retired to Oxford, 1752; published New Theory of Vision, 1709, Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, 1713, Alciphron, 1732, and Siris, 1744.

653 By John Smibert, 1730
Oil on canvas, 40 x 29 1/2 in. (1016 x 749 mm), thick mid-brown eyebrows, dark grey eyes with a wen above the right, plump round face, cleft chin; black velvet cap, white shirt and bands, black cassock; seated in a wooden chair padded with blue, [1] his left hand on a closed book; brown background suggesting the interior of a room; through an opening, right, low rocky cliffs lined with trees, blue sky with orange horizon, beyond; lit from top left.

A signature and date on an island of paint without craquelure, above the hand, right, reads: John Smibert.p./ 1728. The last two figures, according to a past owner J. Winter, [2] 1840, had been rubbed out by his cleaner Heckford and put in again 'in ink' as 25 which date was confirmed by Scharf in the Annual Report of 1882. By 1896, however, and in subsequent NPG catalogues until 1949, the final figure was read as 8, and so remains. It is assumed that at some time between 1888 and 1896 the remains of the original signature were cleaned off and the present one put on. [3] A label, removed from the back of the canvas to the picture dossier, reads: So much understanding, knowledge,/ innocence and humility, I should have thought confined to Angels/ had I never seen this Gentleman/ Bp Atterbury of B/ Berkeley./ This portrait painted shortly before Berkeley's departure for/ the Bermudas, is offered to the/ Revd. W. J. Irons D D/ in testimony of sincere esteem/ and regard by/ his affectionate friend/ T Bowdler 24 Oct 1856 [only the signature and date is in Bowdler's hand].

The identity of NPG 653 is not in dispute. It rests partly on comparison with authentic portraits and partly on provenance, NPG 653 having descended almost certainly from the sitter. If there were any doubt about likeness, there is the skin defect or wen in the inner corner of the eye, a peculiarity observed, for instance, by Latham in his portrait at Trinity College, Dublin. Inevitably the tampering with the signature and date has aroused suspicion although the form of false signatures commonly found in the USA c.1917-30 is Jo.Smibert Ft. [4] In 1965, it was thought, on consideration of style, to be an authentic example of Smibert's work probably painted in America. [5]

The artist is known to have painted details of actual landscapes in some of his American pictures and the background is perhaps the whale-head promontory on Rhode Island known as Hanging Rock to which the sitter possibly refers in the lines from Alciphron: 'we then withdrew to a hollow glade between two rocks where we seated ourselves' (dialogue II, section i). [6] W.S. Lewis, in September 1949, noted when staying near Whitehall, Newport, R.I., the farm where much of this work was reputedly written, that the headland about two miles away resembled Hanging Rock. The book shown in NPG 653 bears no title and cannot be identified. If one of Berkeley's works, the size points rather to the 2nd edition, 1725, of Hylas and Philonus than to Alciphron, which appeared only on his return to England in 1732. [7] But this consideration does not invalidate the conclusions which may be drawn from the notebook.

Bowdler stated that the portrait was painted 'before Berkeley's departure for the Bermudas'. This is accepted by Foote [8] and more recently by others, [9] the suggestion being that it was painted in London to help promote the college plans. Berkeley, as shown in the artist's notebook recently discovered by Sir David Evans, lodged with Smibert in Covent Garden in 1726. Entries give no day or time for appointments but only the month, indicating perhaps commissions rather than sittings. The letters 'HP' for `half-payd' on later entries relate to the common practice of requiring part payment when a picture was started. Berke­ley's name first appears in the section headed June 1726: 'Mr. Dean Berkeley K c', bracketed with 'Mr Butler Clergyman', also 'K C', together costing ‘25-4-0'. [10] 'K C' must indicate a Kit-cat size canvas, 38 x 26 inches, too small for NPG 653. The other entry, June 1727, is 'Doctor Berkeley Dn. of Dy. Cop O.S.' at '12-12-0'. [11] The price is the same as for Kit-cat size canvases but 'O.S.' suggests, according to Adams, 'odd size', and might be the unattributed portrait sold at Sotheby's, 2 November 1960, lot 70, formerly in the collection of Lt-Col. Giles Vandeleur, now owned by Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, booksellers, Los Angeles. Sotheby's catalogue gave the dimensions as 28 x 25 inches, smaller than Kit-cat size. The face, though younger, is close to that in NPG 653, and the chair is similar.

Smibert set sail from London with Berkeley's little missionary group on 4 September 1728. They put in at York River, Virginia, on 6 January and arrived at Rhode Island, 23 January 1729. [12] The date 1728 would be acceptable only on the hypothesis that Smibert used the style still current in contemporary correspondence, with the year beginning on Lady Day; i.e. 1728 would end 24 March 1729. In his notebook, however, he does not use this convention, referring to his arrival in America, for instance, in the new style. [13] From May 1729 he was working in Boston. Two entries for Berkeley under April 1730 and March 1732 [14] refer to 'lit ½’ at £35 which might mean 'little ½ canvas', i.e. less than the normal half size canvas of approximately 50 x 40 inches and an appropriate description of the 40 x 30 size of NPG 653 and its replica.

A version of the same size as NPG 653 appeared among family portraits sold by Stanley Bligh Monck at Christie's, 19 June 1970, lot 102. [15] Two other portraits, lots 96 and 104, were of John Monck (1734-1809), a cousin of the sitter's wife Sarah from whom the property presumably came by descent through the Moncks of Coley Park, Reading, the vendor being the eldest son of Arthur Stanley Monck, great-great-grandson of John. It is worth noting that the forenames of the Bishop's grandson by his second son George Berkeley, the prebendary of Canterbury, were George Monck (d.1793, aged 29) while the names of the second son of John Monck were John Berkeley. [16]

An inscription, top left, on the portrait (lot 102) reads Geo. Berkeley S.T.P. / Dec Derensis and since the sitter was dean of Derry 1724-34, the picture is likely to have been completed by 1734. The varnish is now yellow but preliminary cleaning seems to indicate that it is in better condition than NPG 653 and despite the provenance of the latter, the Monck version might well prove to be the earlier. The only other notebook entries in the American period are for the well-known group of Ber­keley and his colleagues, now at Yale, [17] and the lost portrait with his wife and son, all half length 'in one cloth'. [18] There is thus fairly conclusive evidence that NPG 653 and the version from the Monck family relate to the Boston entries.

Condition: rather rubbed and flattened; some old repairs have discoloured, for example at the outer corner of his right eye, and in the background; lined and cleaned c.1840; restored and varnished, 1882, and supposedly again c.1888-96.

Collections: presented, 1882, by the Rev. William Josiah Irons and received by him, as a gift, from the Rev. Thomas Bowdler (1780-1856), nephew of the editor of Shakespeare, who bought it from J. Winter of Maidstone, Kent, the previous purchaser. [19]

The early history of the portrait is given in a letter dated 21 May 1840 from J. Winter. [20] This states, on the authority of the widow of the Rev John Kennedy (1738-1819), Vicar of Teston in Kent, said to have been curate to the sitter's son George Berkeley (1733-95), Prebendary of Canterbury, that the portrait had been left by the latter to the Rev. Kennedy, together with other portraits of both Berkeleys, father and son. On Kennedy's death they were sold. This does not agree with evidence from wills; the elder Berkeley died in 1753, and his will, signed and dated 31 July 1752, mentions no portraits and leaves all his possessions to his wife Anne. She died at Langley in Kent 27 May 1786, and her will of 22 April 1781 left all the pictures in her house at Peckham, except for two landscapes by Pannini, to the Rev. John Kennedy who, with her son the younger Berkeley, was co-executor. Whichever line is correct, NPG 653 must have belonged to the sitter. The Pannini landscapes, the only named pictures in the will, went to Mrs Moore, wife of the Bishop of Bangor. [21]

Exhibited: 'The British Face', Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, 1967.

Literature: W. Updike, History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, R.I., 1867; A.C. Fraser, The Works of George Berkeley, 1871; A.A. Luce, The Life of George Berkeley, 1949; H.W. Foote, John Smibert, 1950; J.F. Kerslake, 'The Date and Early Provenance of Smibert's George Berkeley', Art Quarterly, XXVIII, 1965; The Notebook of John Smibert, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1969, ed. Sir David Evans and others.

Portraits are not uncommon. A well illustrated account, with useful material revising and expanding Fraser, is given by Luce. [22] Foote discusses the Smiberts in some detail. [23] The earliest portrait of the sitter by this artist formerly at Hanwell Castle and now in the collection of Mrs Maurice Berkeley, Avening, near Stroud, is thought to have been painted while he was in Italy, 1719-22. [24] It shows the characteristic defect above the right eyelid and, as in an anonymous engraving in the NPG library, the sitter is in civil dress. Although not entirely typical of Smibert's early work, the evidence of Roman influence is consistent with a 19th-century record of its Italian origins. Its provenance suggests Berkeley's younger brother Dr Robert (Robin) Berkeley (1696-1787), from whom it descended, but despite appearing rather young for George the eyelid defect points to him. [25] Smibert painted Berkeley twice in London, one portrait perhaps reappearing at Sotheby's in 1960 and four times in America between 1729 and 1732, as discussed above.

The following portraits represent him as bishop and are therefore of 1734 or later. [26] These include an anonymous standing three-quarter length inscribed Mai. 19.1733 (sic), as of his consecration, at Lambeth Palace since 1781 when engraved by T. Cook, [27] and the head and shoulders by James Latham (Lathem) of perhaps c.1734-38, [28] Trinity College, Dublin, exhibited 'Irish Por­traits 1660-1860', NPG, 1970 (22), when the engraving by John Brooks was stated to be of 1743. Berkeley was in Dublin for the last time between October 1737 and May 1738. Latham died 26 January 1747.

A seated three-quarter length with affinities to the work of Francis Bindon, wrongly attributed in Luce to John Vanderbank, is also at Trinity College. [29] A picture near this type was at Sotheby's, 4 October 1967, lot 94, as by Zoffany, and others similarly described were listed in 1871 with General Berkeley and at Allerby, in the collection of Sir David Brewster, the physiologist. [30]

The portrait at Trinity College given to Vanderbank shows the sitter facing the spectator and holding a book, whereas the engraving, 1800, by W. Skelton 'after Vanderbank' has the head turned towards a fountain, left, a different chair and no book. The original of this engraving might be by Slaughter. Among several portraits now lost, one by Vanderbank which presumably went to the sitter's widow, was later, 1797, offered by the widow of the younger George Berkeley to Trinity College—a trans­action evidently never completed. [31]

The group by Smibert at Yale [32] mentioned in the artist's notebook in 1730, comprises Berkeley, his wife and son, members of his mission to America—James, Dalton and Hendcock, as well as Smibert himself. The small version bought by the National Gallery of Ireland, 1897, seems likely to be a copy. A posthumous whole length by Robert Home, c.1783, is one of a set of college worthies painted for Trinity College between 1783 and 1788.

False portraits
Two portraits should now be regarded with reservation. One bearing an ap­parent Smibert signature and date of 1728 was acquired from F.W. Bayley by Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, in 1917 [33] and the other, last seen in the Frank Bulkley Smith sale, American Art Association, New York, 1920, was regarded by C.H. Hart as a repetition of the former. [34]

1. Berkeley's chair is said to have survived and belonged, c.1871, to a Dr Coit. A chair, reputedly the sitter's but not the one in NPG 653, is reproduced Updike, p.306; it is conceivably a studio property.
2. His letter, NPG archives.
3. Cleaning records for c.1890-1920 not available.
4. Foote, p.234 ff.
5. Kerslake, pp.144-53.
6. Ibid; J.M. Phillips, 'The Smibert Tradition', foreword, Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University, XVII, 1949; Fraser, IV, p.168.
7. Suggested by Professor Wimsatt, 1969; also by G. de Voe.
8. Foote, p.33.
9. By de Voe, also Professor Wimsatt, letter of 29 September 1969; the volume held would then be the 24-page Proposal for the better supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations . . . by a College . . . Bermuda, 1725, a work perhaps shown in the portrait sold Sotheby's, 2 November 1960 (see below).
10. Notebook . . ., p.83 (115, 116), i.e. 12 gns each.
11. Ibid, p.84 (147).
12. Ibid, p.86; cf also Foote, p.38, Berkeley's letter to Percival dated 7 Feb 1728/9.
13. C.R. Cheyney, Handbook of Dates (Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks, no.4), 1945, p.5.
14. Notebook . . ., pp.89, 90 (37, 60). On contemporary practice, see also J.D. Stewart, 'Records of Payment to Sir Godfrey Kneller and his Contemporaries', Burlington Magazine, CXIII, 1971, p.30.
15. Now in the author's possession.
16. Burke, Landed Gentry, 1952, pp.1801-02.
17. Notebook . . ., p.89 (48).
18. Ibid, p.90 (49).
19. Mrs Irons, in a letter, confirms the gift to her husband by Bowdler as a memento of friendship, NPG archives.
20. Text, with the writer's initial wrongly as 'I', given by Luce, pp.241-42. Winter was a distant relative of Kennedy's widow.
21. Principal Probate Registry, Somerset House, xx.
22. Luce, pp.239-44.
23. Foote, pp.130-4.
24. An earlier visit c.1717 remains a possibility, cf Notebook . . ., p.7.
25. Luce, p.240 (1); Foote, p.129.
26. I have not seen the picture at the Massachusetts Historical Society, traditionally believed painted during the voyage of 1728; Luce, p.242 (3); Foote, pp.130-3.
27. Luce, pp.242-3 (5).
28. Ibid, pp.247-9.
29. Ibid, reproduced opposite p.180, and p.244 (7).
30. Fraser, IV, p.348, note 24.
31. Luce, pp.244-6; see NPG 653, Collections, above.
32. Foote, pp.131-2; Notebook . . ., p.89 (48).
33. W. Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, reproduced, revised edition 1918, I, frontispiece.
34. Foote, pp.237-8.