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Jeremy Bentham

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Jeremy Bentham

studio of Thomas Frye
71 1/8 in. x 47 1/2 in. (1805 mm x 1205 mm)
NPG 196

Inscriptionback to top

An inscription on the lining canvas, presumably copied from the original: Jeremy Bentham/Octob, 1760 Etatis Suae 130.

This portraitback to top

Thirty years after it was painted, this intriguing but indifferent celebration of Bentham’s precocity was given by his father to the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne (formerly the 2nd Earl of Shelburne), the philosopher’s close friend and patron. Bentham senior wrote to him explaining the circumstances of the portrait: [1]

'The Portrait, at least the capital Part of it, I mean the Head, was done by Frye, a Painter of no small eminence in his Time, and was then look’d upon as a very striking Resemblance, how little Likeness so ever there may appear to be now; but, by the Death of Frye before it was finished, the Under-Part was the work of a different, and I am sorry to say, an indifferent Hand. The two Stanzas inscribed on it were part of a Copy of Verses of my son’s own composition in the Collections of the University Verses upon the occasion of the Death of the late King, and the accession of His present Majesty, and were introduced into the Picture for the purpose of denoting the Time when it was drawn, He then being a Member of Queen’s College Oxford, to which he was admitted when he was but thirteen years of age, and where he took his Degree of A. B. at the age of sixteen, and his subsequent Degree of A. M. by the Time he was twenty; by which, as I was informed, he became the youngest Graduate that had ever been, in the regular Course of Education, at either of our Universities.
With respect to the Violin which makes a Part of the Picture, it gives me occasion to mention that before he was five years old he wanted much to know the meaning of Musical Notes, and being told that they could not be explained but by some means of some Instrument a Friend made him a Present of a kind of Violin called a Kit, and as he had an Ear, he was soon capable of playing several Tunes.'

Bentham senior’s account is borne out by the softness of the head compared, for example, with the dreadful hands. The inscription copied on the verso, if accurate, might only refer to the painting of the head by Frye (who died on 3 April 1762); Bentham was in his thirteenth year 13 February 1760-12 February 1761; he had matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, on 26 June, and his Ode was completed on 28 November 1760.

Footnotesback to top

1) Dated 24 November 1789; from the archive at Bowood, sold Christie’s, 12 October 1994, lot 8. Lansdowne acknowledged the gift in a brief letter of 25 November (Bentham Works, X, 1843, p 225).

Referenceback to top

Fuller 1998
C. Fuller ed., The Old Radical: Representations of Jeremy Bentham, 1998 (University College, London), p 25.

Wynne 1972
M. Wynne, Burlington Magazine, CXIV, 1972, pp 80, 84.

Physical descriptionback to top

Grey(?) eyes, fair hair, wearing a pink suit and black academic gown; dark green curtain to the left and a green cloth on the table on which is an open bound manuscript illegibly inscribed; beneath it a book, CICERO OPERA; on the folded paper lying on the table is written Bentham’s Latin ode on the death of George II and the advent of George III.1

1 Full text as given in Bentham Works, X, 1843, p 41, with, in square brackets the parts legible in NPG 196:
In Obitum Serenissimi Regis Georgii 2di et Georgii 3ii Inaugorationem//[Eheu Geor]gi! Jamne Britannica/[Gestare taedet sceptra piâ manu/Linguisque p]erculsum [Senatum/Et populum Patre] destitutum?/Te triste Fatum sustulit invidens/Tantum Britannis et decus et bonum;/Sed tu beatos inter, alte/Sceptra tenens potiore regno./Quamvis ad instar fulminis, horrido/ Gallum phalanges diruit impetu,/Semperque nobis a cruento/Praesidium fuit hoste tutum./Illumque Regem rudis Americus/Agnovit armis, indomitus prius;/Et Georgii longe remotus/Arma videns trepidavit Afer./[Ne spem Britanni ponite; protinus/En surgit alter Georgius; ille avi/ Virutibus, fama, et corona/Angliaca, potietur] haeres./Et si favebit prospera moribus/Fortuna prorsus labe carentibus,/Et rara Virtus Sanctitasque/Par pretium meritis habebunt,/Nil Georgii non perficient manus;/Redditque fessis Marte diutino/Pacem Britannis; atque clemens/Jure reget populum volentem//Jer. Bentham e Coll:Reg.Oxon:/28 Novembre, 1760.
[On the death of George II and the accession of George III: Alas poor George, the sceptre lies no longer in your blessed hand, government no longer hears your voice, your people have lost their father. Envious Fortune has taken you away, the glory of the British people. You take your sceptre to a greater, higher and blessed Kingdom. When we were struck, like lightning, by the fierce attacks of Gallic hordes, he protected us against a cruel enemy. Even the wilds of unconquered America acknowledged his arms, while distant Africa trembled before him. But despair not, Britannia, another George arises, a worthy heir to his father. Should Fortune preserve him from adversity, and Virtue and Goodness give just reward, he will prevail, bringing peace to a tired country and wise rule to his grateful people. Jeremy Bentham, Queen’s College, Oxford, 28 November 1760].

Provenanceback to top

Presented by the sitter’s father to the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne 1784; bought from a pawnbroker before 1832 by Sir John Bowring,by whom presented 1865.1

1 Bowring was Bentham’s literary executor, and the (most unprofessional) editor of the first edition of Bentham's Works 1838-43. He told Scharf (letter of 23 May 1865; NPG archive) ‘I bought the picture at a pawnbrokers - it having at his [Bentham’s] father’s death ... [been] ‘ignominiously expelled’ [in Bentham’s] phrase - but he recognised it - claimed it as an old acquaintance ...’. Scharf had first been approached by another Bentham pupil, Joseph Parkes (letter from Ramsgate, 22 May 1865; NPG archive), saying that he had ‘written to Sir John Bowring to write the proper letter of offer ...’.

Exhibitionsback to top

Childhood, Camden Arts Centre, 1967 (29).

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.

View all known portraits for Jeremy Bentham