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John Hunter

51 of 1413 portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

John Hunter

by John Jackson, after Sir Joshua Reynolds
1813, based on a work of 1786
55 1/2 in. x 43 1/4 in. (1410 mm x 1099 mm)
NPG 77


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This portraitback to top

Copied from the portrait by Reynolds belonging to the Royal College of Surgeons, London, [1] which was exhibited RA 1786 (223) and engraved by William Sharp in 1788; [2] in 1865 Taylor observed that it was then ‘so irretrievably ruined by darkening and cracking, that the knowledge of what it had been seemed likely to be preserved to us by [NPG 77]’. [3] According to Hunter’s early biographer Everard Home, [4] friends had long wished to have an engraving of him, but he was reluctant to pay for a portrait; it was only to oblige his (and his wife’s) friend the engraver William Sharp, that sittings took place [5] in 1786; it was said that after some difficulty with the pose, Hunter ‘fatigued, fell into a train of thought ... absorbed in his own reflections’, which Reynolds promptly seized. [6] He sat again to Reynolds in 1789, when the head was slightly modified, [7] as is demonstrated by close comparison of the portrait with the Sharp engraving of 1788 - a curious episode; few would agree to have their portraits altered to reflect the effects of illness. [8] Sharp’s print was particularly admired; J. T. Smith said he had ‘immortalised himself’ by it, and Hunter took fifty copies. [9]
John Jackson was well-regarded as a copyist. Charles Bell, for whom NPG 77 was made, wrote to his brother on 6 October 1813: [10]

'I have got a beautiful copy of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ finest portrait – John Hunter, namely. It is admitted to be nearly as fine as the admired original. There is a man, Jackson, who has a wonderful talent for copying Old Masters. He charges more for a copy than Raeburn does for painting a portrait.'
C. R. Leslie recalled that in the autumn of 1813 he and Jackson were both engaged in copying Reynolds’s portrait of John Hunter, then on public exhibition at the British Institution, and later, when he saw Jackson’s copy in Sir Charles Bell’s house, ‘had I not been told what it was, I might have mistaken it for the original’. [11] Jackson also made a half-length drawing from the Reynolds portrait which was engraved by R. Cooper in 1814. [12]
Other copies of the Reynolds portrait are: at Oriel College, Oxford; [13] by H. W. Pickersgill c.1850 (three-quarters) in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London (with an anonymous kit-cat copy); St George’s Hospital, Tooting; a bust-length enamel miniature by Henry Bone 1798, [14] a variant by H. M. Allen (half length with a wispy beard), [15] and a (damaged and reduced) copy by Muller 1854, are with the Royal College of Surgeons, London; a version without the open book, and the ‘prime’ version of the bearded half length, are in the Apothecaries Hall, London, and two nineteenth-century copies (one by Stewart Watson) belong to the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. [16]

Footnotesback to top

1) D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, I, 2000, no.973 [Second special exhibition of National Portraits (William and Mary to MDCCC), South Kensington, 1867 (832)].
2) Also engraved as a half length by W. Sharp 1788; later prints include those by R. Cooper 1814, J. Kennerly 1823, S. W. Reynolds 1833 and W. O. Geller 1836.
3) C. R. Leslie & T. Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1865, II, p 475. In 1809 Farington had described the original as ‘utterly gone by cracking &c’ (Joseph Farington, Diary, 10 June).
4) Sir Everard Home (1756-1832), Hunter’s brother-in-law and executor.
5) J. Hunter, A Treatise on the Blood ...,1794, pp XXXIV-XXXV. In 1785 Hunter had moved to Leicester Square becoming a near-neighbour of Reynolds.
6) C. R. Leslie & T. Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1865, II, p 475.
7) X-radiographs taken by the NPG in 1959.
8) Hunter’s health had not been good; he suffered increasingly from angina and gout; in May 1788 he had had ‘a very severe indisposition for three weeks’ (S. Paget, John Hunter, 1897, pp 168, 181).
9) Ibid., p 180 (where Hunter is also described as ‘a great admirer’ of Sharp’s work; J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, ed. W. Whitten, 1920, I, p 267. Sharp’s print was also, apparently, admired by Gainsborough, see Gainsborough NPG 1107.
10) Sir Charles Bell’s Letters, 1870, p 208. On 12 August he had singled out the Hunter portrait within the Reynolds exhibition at the British Institution as being ‘admirable’ (ibid., p 207).
11) C. R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, 1860, I, pp 77-78.
12) British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits, 1822, I, p 70.
13) Mrs R. L. Poole, Catalogue of Portraits in the possession of the University, Colleges and City and County of Oxford, II, pp 89-90.
14) Exhibited RA 1798 (797); his preparatory drawing in the NPG Bone albums (R. Walker, 'Henry Bone's Pencil Drawings in the National Portrait Gallery', Wal. Soc., LXI, 1999, no.294).
15) Illus. S. Taylor, John Hunter and his Painters, Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1993, fig.2; the beard grown during an outbreak of a rash (J. Kobler, The Reluctant Surgeon, 1960, p 265). The portrait has been whimsically described as the first by Reynolds, who then devised the idea of taking a face mask so that Hunter would have to shave (see NPG 4288n3); it passed from Hunter’s widow to James Weatherall; thence to his nephew Thomas Knight, by whom presented to the Apothecaries, 1857 (see S. Taylor, John Hunter and his Painters, Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1993, p 1).
16) Reduced copies include one with Spink in 1976, and those sold Christie’s, 12 April 1995, lot 485, and another 11 March 1999, lot 33.

Referenceback to top

Graves & Cronin 1899-1901
A. Graves & W. V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 4 vols., 1899-1901, II, pp 495-96.

Mannings 2000
D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., 2000, no.973c.

Physical descriptionback to top

Grey eyes, white hair, wearing a red velvet suit with a white lining, and white stockings; he sits in a green chair; a preparation of the lungs under a bell glass; the open book shows on the left-hand page a series of forelimbs, from the simplest foot to the human hand, and on the right a series of skulls from the human to the least developed; the paper beneath his elbow shows radiating lines; the two closed books are not titled [but in the original portrait they are Natural History of Fossils and Natural History of Vegetables1]; on a ledge beneath the jar an example of a spliced spine by an ossified prop; on the wall the feet of the skeleton of the Irish giant Charles Byrne.2

1 These appear indicative rather than specific titles.
2 He was drawn by Thomas Rowlandson (Royal Society of Surgeons, London; illus. W. LeFanu, A Catalogue of the Portraits and other paintings drawings and sculpture in the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1960, pl.52), the drawing engraved (M. D. George, British Museum, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires, VI, 6856).

Provenanceback to top

Sir Charles Bell, professor of surgery at the University of Edinburgh;1 his widow, Marian, Lady Bell, from whom purchased 1859.

1 A label formerly verso reads: This Portrait of John Hunter was copied by John Jackson R.A. from the original by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, in the year 1816, for Sir Charles Bell: and it was in his possession till his death April 29th 1842.

Exhibitionsback to top

Apples to Atoms, Portraits of Scientists from Newton to Rutherford, NPG travelling exhibition, Science Museum, Norwich, Grasmere, Coalbrookdale, 1986-87; The Room in View, NPG, 1996-98.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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