Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue: Birch

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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Thomas Birch (1705-66)
Historian; born in Clerkenwell of Quaker parents; rector of Ulting, Essex, 1732, and of five other parishes, 1743-66; FRS and FSA, 1735; DD, 1753; secretary of the Royal Society, 1752-65; among many historical and biographical works, wrote the text for Vertue's and Houbraken's Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain; his books and manuscripts bequeathed to the British Museum.

522 By an unknown artist, c.1735
Oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 27 3/4 in. (908 x 705 mm), pale blue eyes, strongly marked eyebrows, fresh complexion, grey wig; black gown with white bands, white shirt sleeves just visible at wrists, a small ring on fifth finger of his left hand; two volumes on table with dark green table-cloth, the smaller with traces of lettering on the spine; dark brown background; lit from the right.

NPG 522 is related to the much livelier painted oval, without hands, bequeathed by the sitter to the British Museum, [1] and datable from his will to 1735.

Condition: surface cleaned and varnished, 1879; lined, cleaned and varnished, 1895.

Collections: transferred, 1879, from the British Museum; unknown before 1838, date of the first issued list of British Museum portraits. [2] It may well have been there much earlier.

Besides NPG 522 and the British Museum oval, there is also the half length by the Rev. James Wills [3] painted, according to Birch's will, in 1737. Engraved by J. Faber junior, 1741, and in reverse by McArdell, the portrait was bequeathed by the sitter to the Royal Society where it was first recorded in 1804. [4] In Jonathan Richardson's sale, 5 February 1772 and days following, lot 25 of the 2nd day included a head of Dr Birch by Richardson's father.

1. Synopsis or Guide Book to the British Museum, Part VI, Portraits, 1843 (26); Harding, II, p.233.
2. Synopsis (46).
3. d.1777. In 1743 described by Vertue, III, p.117, as a promising young painter.
4. Harding, II, p.179; exh. ‘NPE', 1867 (349) as by `Wells' (q.v. Parsons, James, Iconography), presumably Wills.

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