Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue: Halley

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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Edmund Halley (1656-1742) [1]
Astronomer; voyaged to the southern hemisphere and, 1678, aged 22, published Catalogus Stellarum Australium, and in 1705, his celebrated Astronomiae Cometicae Synopsis; a long association with the Royal Society, begun in 1678, resulted in the publication of Newton's Principia and the work of the astronomer Flamsteed; secretary of the Royal Society, 1713; astronomer royal, 1721.

4393 By Richard Phillips, 1721 or before
Oil on canvas, 29 ½ x 24 ½ in. (749 x 622 mm); pale blue eyes, eyebrows slightly puckered, fresh complexion with greyish upper lip and chin, grey wig with deep centre parting; white neck-cloth, brown velvet drapery over shoulders; dark brown background; dark brown painted oval; lit from top left.

Inscribed top right in script Dr Halley, the D and the H having later additions in the form of serifs over the varnish; these were removed on cleaning.

The design of this somewhat stiffly painted portrait corresponds with the engraving by Vertue published without date or source but entered under the year 1721 in his manuscript list of engravings. NPG 4393 is perhaps no more than a repetition and a more sensitive original may yet emerge. However, on the basis of the artist's most substantial portrait, a whole length of William Lowndes (1652-1724), Bank of England collection, there is little ground for optimism on this score.

Condition: a vertical loss running left of the parting in the wig, down into the forehead, and a small damage to his left eye, repaired; lightly cleaned and varnished, 1964.

Collections: bought through Leggatt's, Sotheby's, 21 October 1964, lot 1, the first of four lots from the collection of the Earl of Lucan which had evidently formed, or come to form, a library set. Lots 2, 3 and 4 were of Bolingbroke, Newton and Locke. It is not known who brought them together though the 1st Earl (1735-99) is believed most likely. [2] He and his wife, an amateur painter, were friends of Horace Walpole who mentions them in his Letters from 1776. The suggestion that NPG 4393 may have entered the Earl's collection later than the other three [3] has not been substantiated. The Bolingbroke has since been cleaned and beneath an inscription in small capitals (similar to those noted on the Newton and Locke at the sale) another, earlier one, was revealed in the same hand as that now seen on the Halley. This would suggest that NPG 4393 and Bolingbroke share a com­mon descent, so far not established. It is possible that the lines of descent might also relate to one or more of the Royal Society portraits [4] (see Iconography below).

Engraved: by G. Vertue, 1721.

Literature: [E. Hatton] New View of London, 1708; George Vertue, MS list of his engravings, W.S. Lewis collection, Yale University, USA (photostat, NPG library); Biographia Britannica, 1757; J.W. Burgon, Life and Times of Sir T. Gresham, 1839; The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Mrs P. Toynbee, 1903-25; E.F. MacPike, Notes and Queries, 9th series, XI, Jan-June, 1903; CLV, July-Dec 1928; E.F. MacPike, 'Some Materials for a Pedigree of Dr. Edmond Halley', The Genealogist, new series, XXV, 1908-09; E.F. MacPike, Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley, History of Science Publications, NS II, 1932.

Appearance
‘. . . he was of a middle stature, inclining to tallnesss, of a thin habit of body, and a fair complection, and always spoke as well as acted with an uncommon degree of sprightliness and vivacity.' [5]

Iconography
Portraits before the discovery of NPG 4393 in 1964 are listed by MacPike [6]The earliest, attributed to Thomas Murray, in the collection of the Royal Society, is probably the ‘Dr.Edm. Halley. Murray p.’ noted there by Vertue in 1737. [7] It looks very like Murray's work and an early date is arguable on costume, apparent age and the sitter's known connections with the Royal Society in the 'eighties. It is not clear, however, whether this is the same portrait recorded in the possession of the Society when at Gresham College, where meetings were held until 1666 and again from 1673 to 1710. [8] Early references to their portraits are still in need of elucidation. [9] Of two known to have been in the Society when listed by the Annual Register, [10] 1768, one had been given by the sitter's daughter, Mrs Catharine Price, by will dated 1764.

A three-quarter length by Murray, probably the source of the head and shoulders engraving by Faber junior lettered T. Murray pinx. 1712, was presented by the painter to the Bodleian not later than November 1713 when noted by the antiquary Thomas Hearne as 'lately placed' there and 'done exactly like'. A version is at Queen's College, Oxford. [11]

The portrait by Kneller, now known only from G. White's engraving published when Halley was astronomer royal, is closely datable to 1721-23. Kneller died in the latter year. A half length formerly at Loudon Castle may be based on the Kneller head and seems rightly named. In the London art trade in 1931, it shows the sitter pointing to a map of the English coast, an allusion no doubt to his survey of 1701 and to the detailed map of the tides and coasts of the Channel published the following year. MacPike's reference to Kneller showing Halley in 'the uniform of a Naval Captain' would seem misleading. [12] Naval uniform was not formalised until 1748. His reference to 'a picture of Dr Halley at Mr Whoods' a painter in Bloomsbury' [13] might, however, predicate a copy of the lost Kneller, an artist whose pictures Whood is known to have copied. NPG 4393 by Richard Phillips, c.1721, is of this period.

The painting ascribed to Michael Dahl c.1736 depicting Halley aged eighty in the collection of the Royal Society was bequeathed by Mrs Price; no artist's name is given in her will, [14] a portrait in which Halley is 'represented by his own direction holding in his hand a scroll wherein it is supposed to be written' [15] may be the one owned, 1757, by his son-in-law Henry Price. On the other hand, while both portraits now in the Royal Society show Halley holding a drawing, only in the Murray does it appear to have once been rolled, and in neither has the subject been firmly established. In the Murray it would seem to be a comet and in the Dahl, an aspect of Saturn. [16] Musgrave records a portrait of the sitter at Wimpole. [17]

Notes
1. Edmond, in his will and 'whenever Halley wished to be strictly formal and precise', MacPike, in Notes and Queries, CLV, p 25.
2. Information from the Earl of Lucan.
3. NPG Annual Report, 1954-55, p.39.
4. MacPike, 1908-09, pp.9-14.
5. Biographica Brittania, IV, p.2517.
6. MacPike, 1932, pp.xiii-xiv; also 1908-09, p.11.
7. Vertue, IV, p.146.
8. Hatton, II, p.666; Burgon, II, p.520.
9. MacPike, 1908-09.
10. The Annual Register . . . For the Year 1768, 6th edition, 1800, p.268.
11. Poole, I, p.97 (241); II, p.129 (63).
12. MacPike, 1932, p.xiii.
13. Ibid, p.285.
14. Ibid, p.85.
15. Biographica Brittania, IV, p.2502, side-note 39; 'It' would seem to refer to Knepler's theory of the cause of the elliptical orbit of the planets.
16. Information from I. Kaye, librarian, Royal Society.
17. BM Add. MS 5726, vol. E2, f.7.