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Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton, by Enoch Seeman, circa 1726-1730 -NPG 558 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Stuart Portraits Catalogue

Sir Isaac Newton

studio of Enoch Seeman
circa 1726-1730
50 in. x 58 1/4 in. (1270 mm x 1480 mm)
NPG 558

This portraitback to top

The Principia depicted is the 3rd edition published in 1726, and shows pp 204-05 (‘Propositio LXXXI, Problem XLI’). [1]
A portrait of Newton at the very end of his life. The head derives from a bust-length portrait in Trinity College, Cambridge, inscribed Isaac Newton 1726, presented in 1761 by Thomas Hollis, and engraved in 1760 by Macardell as after Seeman. [2] Newton’s right hand is very poorly painted.
There are a number of versions showing Newton seated at table with the Principia, including: [3]
a) Linley Hall, Salop., the Principia showing a diagram from p 299 of the 3rd edition; wearing a blue gown, the red carpet draped over the table [4]
b) Trinity College, Cambridge, and previously with Frances, Lady Harley (d. 1849), [5] wearing a blue gown, the Principia showing pp 256-57 of the 3rd edition. An abbreviated version of the Linley Hall portrait without the globe
c) Grace K. Babson collection, Babson College, Babson Park MA, displayed in a reconstructed interior of Newton’s house in St Martin’s Street, London, where he lived 1710-25; resembling the Trinity portrait with the addition of the globe. [6]
In these portraits the folds of Newton’s gown, the chair and the size and position of the open Principia resemble those in NPG 558, but they do not show the bookshelves on the left, Newton’s coat of arms on the table, or the rich pattern on his gown, making NPG 558 the most elaborate image; Keynes suggests it may have been commissioned by the Newton family.
Each of these portraits was very probably posthumous, [7] and on the evidence of the Trinity bust-length, all should be attributed to Seeman or his studio. NPG 558 was probably a studio production since it is perhaps the weakest in execution, despite the precise attention to detail. Previous attributions of NPG 558 and b) and c) above to Vanderbank [8] may be discounted on comparison with the Vanderbank portraits of 1725 and 1726.
Enamel copies of NPG 558 were made by H. P. Bone in 1846, 1847 and 1851. [9] An unattributed bust-length miniature belongs to the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. [10]

Footnotesback to top

1) As first identified in 1954 by Piper who commented that the diagrams seen in NPG 558 do not recur together in any other edition of the Principia (note on file, 23 October 1954).
2) Wearing a blue gown; see M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, 2005, XIV-1, p 32, and XLIX, p 59. The date of 1726 could equally refer to the date of Newton’s death, 2 March 1726OS or 1727NS. Slightly extended bust-length versions with the American Philosophical Society (M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, 2005, XIV-6, p 35) and in the collection of R. G. Knight in 1964.
3) In 1861 Scharf (Sir George Scharf’s Sketch Books, 60:116) noted a portrait in the collection of the Marquess of Bute at Luton Hoo: seated at table with a globe ‘just like the British Museum portrait’, i.e NPG 558. Such a portrait does not appear in later lists of the Bute collection.
4) M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, 2005, XIV-2, p 33.
5) M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, 2005, XIV-3, pp 33-34. Lady Frances Harley was the sister of the 6th and last Earl of Oxford (see also 1st Earl of Oxford, NPG 4011). An untraced portrait of Newton by Dahl was seen at Wimpole by Vertue in 1724 (G. Vertue, Notebooks, Wal. Soc., XVIII, 1930, 138), presumably that in the Oxford sale, 5th day, 12th March 1742, lot 15 (cf. W. Nisser, Michael Dahl, 1927, cat. p 68, no.106); an unattributed portrait of Newton appeared in the Earl of Hardwicke’s sale, Christie’s, 30 June 1888, lot 24.
6) M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, XIV-5, p 35.
7) Seeman was practised in such historicism, cf. under Marlborough, NPG 5318 and [c.1725?].
8) See note 9 and, for example, Connoisseur, LXV, 1923, p 177.
9) When NPG 558 was still in the British Museum as by Vanderbank; they are as follows: 1846, sold Christie’s, 24 June 1975, lot 69; 1847, exhibited RA 1847, no.643, presumably that now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (4853-1901), another sold Sotheby’s Arcade, 2-3 June 1992, lot 714; 1851, exhibited RA 1851(838).
10) M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, XIV-8, p 35; presented by the Royal Society, London, in 1943.

Referenceback to top

Ellis 1843
Sir Henry Ellis, List of Portraits suspended on the Walls of the Eastern Zoological Gallery, British Museum, 1843, no.69.

Keynes 2005
M. Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800, 2005, XIV-4, p 34.

Piper 1963
D. Piper, Catalogue of the Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625-1714, 1963, p 249 as artist unknown.

Provenanceback to top

Bequeathed by John Hatsell (1743-1820)1 to the British Museum 1821; transferred to the NPG 1879.

1 Celebrated Clerk to the House of Commons.

Exhibitionsback to top

Tercentenary Exhibition, Royal Society, Burlington House, 1960; Science Museum, London, 1969; Voltaire, musée de l’Ile de France, Château de Sceaux, 1978; Apples to Atoms, Portraits of Scientists from Newton to Rutherford, NPG travelling exhibition, Science Museum, Norwich, Grasmere, Coalbrookdale, 1986-87; Glorieuze Revolutie, Nieuwe Kerke, Amsterdam, 1988, no.357; Voltaire et l’Europe, l’hôtel des Monnaies, Paris, 1994–95, no.109; Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, Fukushima, Nagoya, Kitakyushu, Hiroshima, Tokyo, 1995–96, no.8.


This extended catalogue entry is from the National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Later Stuart Portraits 1685–1714, National Portrait Gallery, 2009, 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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