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Sir William Chambers; Joseph Wilton; Sir Joshua Reynolds

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Sir William Chambers; Joseph Wilton; Sir Joshua Reynolds, by John Francis Rigaud, 1782 -NPG 987 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Sir William Chambers; Joseph Wilton; Sir Joshua Reynolds

by John Francis Rigaud
46 1/2 in. x 56 1/2 in. (1181 mm x 1435 mm)
NPG 987

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated bottom left: J. F Rigaud/1782.

This portraitback to top

NPG 987 shows, from the left
Sir William Chambers (1723-96): grey eyes, grey powdered wig, wearing the Polar Star on his green coat with silver buttons bearing a gold device; gold brocade waistcoat and grey-green breeches; his right elbow rests on a capital and in his right hand a T-square; he points with his left hand to a plan [1] on which lie dividers.
Joseph Wilton (1722-1803): his dark eyes apparently focused on Chambers’s badge of the Polar Star; grey powdered wig, wearing a sandy-brown coat with matching buttons and a yellow green-striped waistcoat; in his right hand a mallet, his left stretched out towards the distant figure of the Apollo Belvedere. [2]
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92): blue eyes, grey powdered wig, wearing a matching coat and waistcoat of red with gold buttons, trimmed with dark fur; he leans on a folio of drawings and sits in a blue-upholstered chair.
Compared with Rigaud's earlier group portrait of the three Italian Academicians (see NPG 3186), the canvas is slightly larger and the composition more successful. The artist's son explained that NPG 987 was ‘intended as a companion' and was

'a very interesting group of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first and distinguished President of the Royal Academy; J. Wilton R.A. Sculptor (afterwards Keeper of the Royal Academy;) and Sir William Chambers R.A. Architect, and Surveyor of the Board of Works: They are represented as in conversation, Sir Joshua in the act of addressing his brother artists, with all the gentleness and suavity for which he was so remarkable, thus giving a perfect idea of his countenance, his expression and character.' [3]
He even preferred his father's portrait of Reynolds to the self portrait Reynolds presented to the RA (as a Doctor of civil law 1780), as 'a more true representation of his personal appearance, and his peculiar expression' (the Rigaud head somewhat resembles the Reynolds self portrait of 1773, of which, however, there was no early engraving). Of contemporary reviews the St James’s Chronicle, 2-4 May 1782, agreed that ‘They are strong and expressive Resemblances; but the Integrity which led the Artist to copy so exactly the Vulgarity of the President’s Countenance will not recommend him to his Favour; and he will probably remain some Time longer among the Associates’. But Rigaud was elected RA in 1784.
This uncommissioned picture portraying three senior Royal Academicians (of similar age, eminent representatives of the arts of sculpture, architecture, and painting, was evidently an exercise in self-advertisement. It may also celebrate the move of the Royal Academy in 1780 to rooms in Somerset House, the masterpiece of Chambers, in which Wilton undertook much decorative carving. [4] Both architect and sculptor had long been distinguished by Royal patronage. The elegant Wilton, to be elected Librarian and Keeper of the Royal Academy in 1786 and 1790 respectively, had been appointed sculptor in ordinary to the King in 1761. Chambers, Knight of the Polar Star, had come to dominate the Office of Works since his initial appointment (as Treasurer) in the Instrument of Foundation of the Royal Academy. In 1782 he was appointed first surveyor-general and comptroller of the Office of Works. Reynolds, elected first President of the Academy and knighted in 1769, would not be further distinguished by the King until 1784 when he succeeded Ramsay as Principal Painter. He had previously painted the young Wilton in Florence in 1752 (NPG 4810) and had painted Chambers in 1756 (NPG 27), and 1777-80 (a portrait commissioned by the Royal Academy). In 1771 Chambers had designed for him Wick House at Richmond. But the President remained a little in awe of his well-established Treasurer and Wendorf has observed that Rigaud’s group hints at uneasiness, the central cluster of gesturing hands suggesting the two are essentially at cross purposes, 'engaged in an administrative stand off'. [5]

Footnotesback to top

1) 'A plan for a small structure approached by flight of stairs and entered through a lie of four closely packed columns. A casino? A temple? A belvedere to house the Belvedere? The original drawing does not seem to have survived’ (N. Bingham, Country Life, CLXXXV, 1991, p 54).
2) Of which he acquired a cast in 1754 and copied for the Duke of Richmond c.1760.
3) W. L. Pressly ed., 'Facts and Recollections of the XVIIIth Century in a Memoir of John Francis Rigaud Esq., R.A.', by Stephen Francis Dutilh Rigaud, Wal. Soc., I, 1984, p 68.
4) For their collaboration see J. Coutu in J. Harris & M. Snodin eds., Sir William Chambers, 1996, pp 175-85.
5) R. Wendorf, Reynolds, 1996, p 185.

Referenceback to top

Coutu 1996
J. Coutu in J. Harris and M Snodin eds., Sir William Chambers, 1996, p 183.

Provenanceback to top

Rigaud sale, Peter Coxe, 2nd day, 4 April 1811, lot 81; Montagu Chambers QC (grandson of Sir William); his sale, Christie’s, 9 July 1886, lot 109, bought Wertheimer; James Price sale, Christie’s, 15 June 1895, lot 60 (as Reynolds, J. Bacon and Sir W. Chambers), purchased.

Exhibitionsback to top

RA 1782 (111); RA 1879 (172 as Zoffany) lent Montagu Chambers; Bicentenary Exhibition, RA, 1968-69 (34); Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Self Portraits, Sudbury, Plymough, 1992 (32); Chambers, London, Stockholm, 1996-97; Art on the Line, Courtauld Gallery, 2001 (9).

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.

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