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Stephen Pearce

36 of 63 portraits by Stephen Pearce

Stephen Pearce, by Stephen Pearce, early 1860s -NPG 1381 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Stephen Pearce

by Stephen Pearce
Oil on commercially primed canvas, early 1860s
23 7/8 in. x 20 in. (608 mm x 508 mm) overall
NPG 1381

Inscriptionback to top

On reverse of canvas inscr.: ‘Stephen Pearce. / Portrait Painter – THE PUPIL of SIR M.A.SHEE . P.R.A. – PAINTED with / SIR FRANCIS GRANT. P.R.A . – EXHIBITOR AT THE ROYAL / ACADEMY for 36 SUCCESSIVE YEARS: from 1849 to 1885.’;

This portraitback to top

The self-portrait is not signed or dated but bears Pearce’s name and some biographical information painted on the reverse. [1] It probably dates to the early 1860s, when he was already established as a painter of equestrian and naval portraits.

One of his earliest successes was The Arctic Council (1851), a ‘historical picture’ depicting a group of naval officers and explorers planning the search for Sir John Franklin. Franklin’s expedition had last been seen in Baffin Bay in 1845; evidence of his death was not discovered until 1854, with further confirmation in 1857. When Pearce’s painting was exhibited at Graves’s Gallery in 1851, and at the Royal Academy in 1853, the expedition’s fate was still tantalizingly uncertain. The image was popularized through the mezzotint by James Scott published by Graves in 1853. [2] Pearce had obtained the original commission through John Barrow, Archivist to the Admiralty and an old friend; he is also one of the sitters. [3] Barrow bequeathed the group portrait to the National Portrait Gallery in 1899 (NPG1208).

Pearce’s bequest of the self-portrait in 1904 came with a condition attached: ‘I give to the Directors of the National Portrait Gallery my Portrait (Life sized Head in oil colors) with a request that it may be hung in the Arctic Gallery with the portraits of Arctic Officers and Explorers presented to the Gallery by Lady Franklin and John Barrow Esq.’ [4] Lionel Cust’s reply to this awkward request is not on file.

Correspondence between the artist and various Gallery directors began as early as 1871; it concerned The Arctic Council and other explorer portraits) but there is no reference to a self-portrait. [5] The NPG has forty-two works by Stephen Pearce – by far the largest collection anywhere – and all except NPG 1381 were commissioned or purchased by John Barrow or Lady Franklin as memorials to the Arctic explorers. See NPG Portrait Set ‘Arctic explorers: paintings by Stephen Pearce, 1850–86’.

NPG 1381 is reproduced as the frontispiece to Pearce’s Memories of the Past but not referred to in the text.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) The writing is not necessarily autograph: Pearce exhibited at the RA from 1839 to 1885 (Graves 1905–6, vol.3), not 1849–85, and no apprenticeship with Grant is cited in his memoirs (‘I painted with Sir M.A. Shee for rather more than a year’; Pearce 1903, p.24).
2) See advertising pamphlet, The Arctic Council: an Historical Picture … Mezzotinto, Henry Graves & Co., 6 Pall Mall, London [1853] (copy NPG Archive). An impression of Scott’s print is NPG D9472. Several other Pearce portraits of explorers and equestrian subjects were reproduced as mezzotints in the 1860s.
3) One of ‘the two great friends of my youth and my manhood, to whom I always went for counsel, advice and help’; Pearce 1903, pp.17–18.
4) Letter from the Executors’ solicitors to Lionel Cust, 26 Apr. 1904, NPG RP 1381.
5) For a summary of his career see the letter from S. Pearce to George Scharf, 16 Dec. 1871, NPG RP 903. See also NPG RP 1208 for further Pearce letters to the Gallery.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, three-quarter profile to right, blue silk tie in gold tie ring.

Provenanceback to top

Bequeathed by the artist, 1904.

Reproductionsback to top

Pearce 1903, frontispiece.

View all known portraits for Stephen Pearce