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James Boswell

1 of 16 portraits of James Boswell

James Boswell, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1785 -NPG 4452 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

James Boswell

by Sir Joshua Reynolds
30 in. x 25 in. (762 mm x 635 mm)
NPG 4452

This portraitback to top

Boswell wrote to Reynolds on 7 June 1785 explaining that, although he could not afford 'any expensive article of elegant luxury', he 'would regret very much that there should not be at Auchinleck [the Boswell family seat in Ayrshire] my portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom I have the felicity of living in social intimacy'. He accordingly proposed paying for such a portrait from his legal earnings over the next five years. Reynolds began the portrait on 5 July 1785 and there were sittings on 8 July and 15 August; on 10 September Boswell recorded in his diary, 'Breakfasted with Sir Joshua and had my picture finished'. [1] On that day Reynolds endorsed Boswell's letter of 7 June, but the account was never settled and Reynolds eventually forgave the debt in 1791, the year Boswell’s Life of Johnson was first published with a fulsome dedication to him. Malone described the portrait as 'a perfect and very characteristic likeness'. [2] The engraving by John Jones was published on 17 January 1786 and the Morning Herald alleged that Boswell tried to have it shown in every printseller's window, like a portrait of Fanny Kemble. [3]
NPG 1675 is a studio version and NPG 4344 a late nineteenth-century bust-length watercolour copy by J. Brownlee Hunter. [4] An early copy (in a private collection in Philadelphia in 1970) was lithographed with a plain background in the mid-nineteenth century. Versions were exhibited at Manchester 1857(British Portrait Gallery, within the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition, 305) lent by James Crossley (described as ‘formerly the property of Boswell’s son, James’); at Edinburgh 1885 (46) lent by Mrs George Mounsey, and at the New Gallery 1891 (313) as after Reynolds lent by Philip Norman (sold Christie’s, 24 June 1932, lot 72). [5] In the younger Boswell’s sale, Sotheby’s, 3 June 1825, lot 3287 was a ‘Portrait of Jas. Boswell esq. copied by S. Harding in 1795 from a picture by Sir Josh. Reynolds, painted in 1789’, and lot 3289 ‘a three-quarter-length portrait of James Boswell, esq., in oil’. [6] A miniature version by Thomas Day was sold Christie’s, 11 July 1985, lot 387.

Footnotesback to top

1) For this account, see I. S. Lustig & F. A. Pottle eds., Boswell: The Applause of the Jury 1782-1785, 1982, pp 308-09, 317, 321, 337, 340; Leslie & Taylor 1865, II, pp 476-77.
2) Quoted in James Boswell jr. sale cat., see Gentleman's Magazine, XCV, 1825, I, p 607.
3) I. S. Lustig & F. A. Pottle eds., Boswell: the English Experiment 1785-1789, 1986, p 97n7.
4) Presented by J. B. L. Munro 1963 in memory of the Rev J. Lorimer Munro. 17.2 x 13.2 (6¾ x 5¼); signed J Brownlee Hunter, and inscribed James Boswell Esq/of Auchinleck.
5) Another copy by ‘Thompson’ from the collection of ‘Spanish Phillips’ (the painter John Phillips, 1817-67), was sold Christie’s, 9 May 1846, lot 2; a version belonged to the Long Island Historical Society c.1910.
6) Gentleman's Magazine, XCV, 1825, I, p 607.

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, I, pp 99-100.

Mannings 2000
D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., 2000, no. 214.

Physical descriptionback to top

Blue-grey eyes; powdered wig; slate-grey coat and waistcoat; a deep red drapery above.

Provenanceback to top

By descent from the sitter to Sir James Boswell, 2nd Bt of Auchinleck, whose daughter Emily Harriet (d. 1898) married Richard, 5th Baron Talbot of Malahide; given by the 7th Baron Talbot to Sir Gilbert Eliott, 10th Bt, in 1949; sold by his son, Sir Arthur Boswell Eliott, Sotheby's, 7 July 1965, lot 125, bought Leger for the NPG, the purchase made with the aid of two private donors, the Johnson Club, the National Art Collections Fund and a Government grant.

Exhibitionsback to top

RA 1787 (113); Boswell, NPG, 1967 (90); The Georgian Playhouse, Actors, Artists, Audiences and Architecture 1730-1830 1975 (96); Reynolds, RA, 1986 (136).

Reproductionsback to top

J. Jones 1786; reduced plates; anon. 1787 (European Mag.), B. Granger 1802, W. H. Worthington 1826, E. Finden 1835, S. Freeman 1855, G. W. Hutin; R. Graves.

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 James Boswell

View all known portraits for Sir Joshua Reynolds


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