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Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), Writer and divine; author of 'Tristram Shandy'

The earliest extant portrait is likely to be the rough oil now known from the engraving 'Thos Bridges and Lawrence Sterne, as Mountebanks' by C. J. Smith, published 1838 in Dibdin's Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in the North Counties of England and Scotland. [1] Each apparently painted the other; Sterne who had some skill as an amateur artist [2] depicted his friend as a quack doctor. His 'Memorandums' dated 28 December 1761 'left with Mrs Montague, In Case I should die abroad' simply refer to 'The 2 Pictures of the Mountebank & his Macaroni'. [3] Thomas Bridges (fl. 1759-75) who was in London by 1760 to begin his brief career as a hack comic writer had been active in York in the late 1740s. The original painting when seen by Dibdin in 1820 was in the possession of Dr James Atkinson, the York surgeon. [4] A portrait by Christopher ‘Count' [5] Steele (b. 1730), Romney's painting master in York to whom Sterne sat c.1765, [6] is now lost.

After Reynolds' portrait of 1760, Sterne was drawn by Carmontelle in 1762 (see NPG 2785) and a miniature by an unknown artist sent to his wife in 1762 is mentioned in a letter from Paris dated May 12 addressed to Thomas Becket, publisher of volumes V and VI of Tristram Shandy. 'Mr Tollet the Gentleman who does me the favour to deliver You this - will give you two Snuff Boxes - they are of Value - in one is my Portrait, don[e] here', writes Sterne, and proceeds to give directions for their despatch to Mrs Sterne 'by the first York Stage coach (with Care)'. [7] Charles Tollet (1726-96), [8] a friend of Sterne's, presumably carried out the commission for in the following month the sitter writes to his wife that 'if I was not sure you must have long since got my picture ... I would write and scold Mr. T[ollet] abominably'. [9] In September 1768, in correspondence with Becket over settlement of the estate, Sterne's daughter Lydia wrote: '- the account I believe stands thus that is supposing my uncle Mr Botham has paid into your hands the ten Guineas he recd for my Fathers picture'. [10] This might be a reference to the miniature whose present whereabouts is not known.

Thomas Patch painted Sterne in Florence in December 1765. The original, now at Jesus College, Cambridge, formerly in the collection of J. A. Henderson of Mamhead Grange, Exeter, was possibly owned by Sir William Fitzherbert, Bart, of Tissington, Derbyshire, for whom Patch painted c.1768 ‘The Music Lesson' which included portraits of himself and Fitzherbert. [11] A portrait of some kind, perhaps a gift from the sitter, was evidently owned by Mrs Draper by 1767. Writing to her possibly in March, Sterne records: 'And so thou hast fixed thy Bramin's portrait over thy writing-desk; and will consult it in all doubts and difficulties. - Grateful and good girl! Yorick smiles contentedly over all thou dost; his picture does not do justice to his own complacency!' [12] This portrait was perhaps one of the ten impressions of the mezzotint for which Sterne paid Reynolds about this time - a convenient and comparatively inexpensive means for authors to provide their admirers with an image. 'Sterne and Death' by Patch and the artist's somewhat different engraving, reversed, show Sterne bowing to the figure of Death. A similar engraving lettered Dr. Sterne alias Tristram Shandy, signed and dated 1769, is usually associated with the twenty-five caricatures (no.20) by Patch bound up at the end of the life of Masaccio. [13] Another engraving after the same portrait is inscribed Patch Pinx.et Sculp. Floren [14] A print endorsed in Walpole's hand is in the possession of W. S. Lewis, Farmington, Connecticut. The bust by Nollekens was taken in Rome 1766 (see NPG 1891). A portrait attributed to Lawrence Holme was exhibited at the British Institution 1857 (128), lent by Beriah Botfield. Professor Cash believes that this is the copy of the Reynolds now at Jesus College, Cambridge. [15]

Doubtful Portraits
An oil ascribed to Gainsborough, at Christie's, 14 April 1864, in the posthumous sale of Thomas Turton, Bishop of Ely, appears wrongly named. Drawings in chalk called Sterne and his wife attributed to Francis Cotes, last noted in the possession of C. H. Plimpton, New York City, [16] were equated with the portraits seen in the collection of Mr Porter, a bookseller in Boston, Lincs, by Nathaniel Hawthorne and mentioned in his Pilgrimage to Old Boston. [17] No other evidence is known to confirm either the identity of the sitters or the artist who might conceivably be Samuel Cotes, younger brother of Francis. [18] The portrait catalogued 'Sterne by Steele', Christie's, 7 June 1912, lot 60, was published as frontispiece to Sichel's Sterne, A Study when in the collection of J. B. Wirgman. It was not there stated to be by this artist and does not appear to represent the sitter. A so-called death mask, apparently based on the Nollekens bust, is in Princeton University Library.

1) Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. L. P. Curtis, 1935, p 59 and note 7, suggesting Dibdin may be in error and that Bridges is perhaps the Rev. Joseph Bridges, sub-chanter of York.
2) 'According as the fly stung', Sterne records, he sought relaxation 'in books, painting and fiddling'; although 'chiefly copying portraits', he apparently had 'a good idea of drawing but not the least of mixing colours', Dictionary of National Biography, XVIII, p 1090.
3) Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. L. P. Curtis, 1935, pp 146-48 and note 11; Sterne says the two pictures ‘... is in a lady's hands ...'.
4) Dictionary of National Biography, XVIII, p 1090; also notes of Prof. A. Cash.
5) So styled for his extravagant dress. For a portrait wrongly identified see Doubtful Portraits.
6) W. Hayley, Life of George Romney, 1809, pp 26-27.
7) Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. L. P. Curtis, 1935, pp 166-67 and note 1.
8) Ibid, p 169, note 10.
9) Ibid, p 176.
10) Ibid, p 441.
11) F. J. B. Watson, Thomas Patch (1725-1782), Walpole Society, XXVIII, 1940, p 36.
12) Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. L. P. Curtis, 1935, p 305.
13) F. J. B. Watson, Thomas Patch (1725-1782), Walpole Society, XXVIII, 1940, pp 44-45.
14) F. J. B. Watson, Thomas Patch (1725-1782), Walpole Society, XXVIII, 1940, p 47; Sterne was in Florence only 6 days.
15) Although called a 'bust' in the catalogue, all the items exhibited were old master paintings. 'Bust' presumably means a head and shoulders oil. The dimensions of Botfield's portrait of Sterne were, however: H. 5 ft. 5 ½ in. W. 4 ft. 8 in., according to his Catalogue of Pictures in the Possession of Beriah Botfield, Esq. at Norton Hall, 1848.
16) W. L. Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, New York, 1909, xx-xxi.
17) N. Hawthorne, Our Old Home, I, 1863, pp 260-61.
18) Cash gives a more extensive list of doubtful and wrongly named portraits.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977, 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.