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Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Astronomer

Portraits before the discovery of NPG 4393 in 1964 are listed by MacPike. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] Early references to their portraits are still in need of elucidation. [4] Of two known to have been in the Society when listed by the Annual Register, [5] 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. [6]
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. [7] Naval uniform was not formalised until 1748. His reference to 'a picture of Dr Halley at Mr Whoods' a painter in Bloomsbury' [8] 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, [9] a portrait in which Halley is 'represented by his own direction holding in his hand a scroll wherein it is supposed to be written' [10] 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. [11] Musgrave records a portrait of the sitter at Wimpole. [12]

1) E. F. MacPike, Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley, History of Science Publications, NS II, 1932, pp xiii-xiv; also 1908-09, p 11.
2) G. Vertue, Vertue Note Books (edited by The Earl of Ilchester), Walpole Society, vols XVIll-XXIX, 1930-55, IV, p 146.
3) [E. Hatton], New View of London, 1708, II, p 666; J. W. Burgon, Life and Times of Sir T. Gresham, 1839, II, p 520.
4) E. F. MacPike, 'Some Materials for a Pedigree of Dr. Edmond Halley', The Genealogist, new series, XXV, 1908-09.
5) The Annual Register ... For the Year 1768, 6th edition, 1800, p 268.
6) R. L. Poole, Catalogue of Portraits in the Possession of the University, Colleges, City and County of Oxford, 1912-25, I, p 97 (241); II, p 129 (63).
7) E. F. MacPike, Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley, History of Science Publications, NS II, 1932, p xiii.
8) Ibid, p 285.
9) Ibid, p 85.
10) Biographia Britannica, 1757, IV, p 2502, side-note 39; 'It' would seem to refer to Kepler's theory of the cause of the elliptical orbit of the planets.
11) Information from I. Kaye, librarian, Royal Society.
12) British Museum Add. MS 5726, vol. E2, f.7.


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.