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George Frideric Handel

12 of 182 portraits by Thomas Hudson

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George Frideric Handel

by Thomas Hudson
oil on canvas, 1756
94 in. x 57 1/2 in. (2388 mm x 1461 mm)
Purchased with help from the Handel Appeal Fund and H.M. Government, 1968
Primary Collection
NPG 3970

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Thomas Hudson (1701-1779), Portrait painter and art collector. Artist associated with 182 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait of the composer George Frederick Handel, seen here in old age and by now blind, with the score of Messiah and painted for Handel's friend, Charles Jennens, who selected the words for Messiah, has been on almost continuous display since its purchase in 1968. It was first offered to the Gallery at a price of £10,000. Despite this prohibitively high price tag, the acquisition was considered a priority because of Handel’s standing as a national figurehead in the history of British music. The new director Roy Strong made the unprecedented decision to the mount the Gallery’s first public appeal to secure the portrait for the nation.
The appeal culminated with a special performance of one of Handel’s best-known works, the Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall. [1] This featured the internationally renowned classical singer Joan Sutherland and conductor Richard Boynynge, and was attended by the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra, who later wrote to the Gallery apologising for her late arrival due to congested traffic [3, to be re-labelled 2]. The portrait was acquired with the proceeds for £9,450.
Despite this success, there were some outspoken objections to the appeal itself: What’s On In London acerbically recalled how in 1742 Handel had devoted the proceeds of the first performance of the Messiah to charitable causes, and noted the appalling conditions in which young offenders were being kept in 1968 [4, to be re-labelled 3]. However, an anonymous donation and the enthusiastic support of the Arts Minister, enabled the Gallery to host an event for 400 children from Outer London Boroughs, thereby honouring Handel’s original charitable endeavours. The magnificent rococo frame with trophies of musical instruments and scores at top and bottom is original and may have been the work of Joseph Duffour, a leading carver and gilder of French origin.
This was to be the first of a number of successful public appeals on the part of the Gallery. Portraits acquired through public appeal more recently include Sir Antony Van Dyck’s last self-portrait (NPG 6987), Hans Eworth’s portrait of Mary Neville, Lady Dacre and Gregory Fiennes, Baron Dacre (NPG 6855), Albert Charles Challen’s portrait of Mary Seacole (NPG 6856), and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (NPG 7032).
More detailed information on this portrait is available in a National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue, John Kerslake's Early Georgian Portraits (1977, out of print).

Related worksback to top

  • NPG D35305: George Frideric Handel (source portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 47
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 29
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 30 Read entry

    Handel composed operas, oratorios, concertos and occasional music for fifty years. This portrait includes the score of Messiah.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 56
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 56 Read entry

    Known as the Gopsall Portrait, after the house in Leicestershire of Charles Jennens, librettist of Messiah, who commissioned it, this commemorates the life’s work of the composer, who was by then blind and aged. It was secured for the nation in 1968 with the help of a special government grant and a public appeal.

  • Kerslake, John, Early Georgian Portraits, 1977, p. 123
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 277
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 160 Read entry

    Carved and gilt pine, mitred and keyed, much of the surface detail worked in the gesso. At top, violin and bow, tambourine, lyre, three wind instruments and sheet music; at bottom, three bound volumes of music. 7 1⁄ 4 inches wide with prominent centres and corners projecting 2 1⁄ 2 inches and trophies at top and bottom, projecting 14 inches and 10 inches respectively.

    This splendid frame in the rococo style, with its trophies of musical instruments, and scores at top and bottom, was designed for Hudson's full-length picture of Handel, showing the composer in old age. The portrait was painted in 1756 for Charles Jennens, librettist of Messiah, a rich man with a taste for ornate rococo interiors. There is, however, no evidence that the frame was designed for a particular location, since the portrait hung first in Jennens's London house and then at Gopsall, his country house in Leicestershire.

    The trophy at the top of the frame is based on a French engraving by Jacques Dumont after Jacques François and Marie Blondel, a source which the French carver, Jean Antoine Cuenot, used for the Music Room at Norfolk House, completed the very same year as the Handel frame (this room is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum).1

    The basic elements of the design are, however, found on a more modest scale on some other Hudson portraits of the 1750s, such as his Sir Peter Warren; these features include the prominent stylised shell centres, the piercing of the sides at the quarter points, the inset panels scored with a mesh of diagonal lines, and the sanded flat next to the gadrooned sight edge. The vocabulary suggests that Hudson's usual framemaker may have been responsible for making the frame to Jennens's order. What evidence there is as to his identity points to Joseph Duffour, another carver and gilder of French origin.

    1 See Desmond Fitz-Gerald, The Norfolk House Music Room, 1973, pl.40. For Cuenot's work for Norfolk House, see also NPG 5293.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 105 Read entry

    Born in Saxony, the composer George Frideric Handel worked in Halle, Hamburg, Italy and Hanover before settling in London, finally becoming a British citizen in 1727. He quickly became established in Britain, composing a succession of operas beginning with Rinaldo (1711) and writing church music for the Chapel Royal. His orchestral scores include Water Music, performed from barges on the Thames for George I in 1717, and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749). One of his greatest achievements, however, was popularising the oratorio, a sort of religious musical drama. Handel’s most famous oratorio is Messiah, which was composed in twenty-four days. First performed in Dublin in 1742, it became a national institution within Handel’s lifetime.

    The lasting fame of Messiah is represented in this portrait by Thomas Hudson (1701–79), painted in 1756 for Charles Jennens, the librettist of many of Handel’s works, including this oratorio. The score is depicted on the table in front of the composer, despite the fact that by the time of this painting Handel had gone blind. In 1967, this important portrait was the subject of the National Portrait Gallery’s first public appeal.

Events of 1756back to top

Current affairs

Government falls after criticism of its handling of the Seven Years War. Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle is succeeded by William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, who forms a ministry effectively run by William Pitt the Elder.

Art and science

Satiristist Thomas Rowlandson is born in Old Jewry in the City of London. His main rival James Gillray is born exactly a month later in Chelsea.
Completion of William Edwards' Old Bridge, Pontypridd; the longest single span bridge in Britain for the next forty years.


'Black Hole of Calcutta': a group of British prisoners, including East India Company servant John Zephaniah Holwell, are locked in a small, overcrowded dungeon overnight when Fort William in Calcutta is captured by troops of the Nawab of Bengal. Holwell claims 123 of the 146 prisoners died.
Outbreak of the Seven Years War in which Britain, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark are pitted against France, Austria, Russia and Sweden.

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