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Laurence Sterne

2 of 16 portraits of Laurence Sterne

Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Laurence Sterne

by Unknown artist
circa 1760
17 1/2 in. x 14 in. (444 mm x 356 mm)
NPG 2022

This portraitback to top

Identification rests on comparison with authentic likenesses and is strengthened by the allusion to Rabelais. This also suggests an approximate terminus, the appearance of the first volume of Tristram Shandy in 1760 leading Warburton to compare the two authors. [1] The painter is not known but the hand, like the interior, appears to be English. The chair too, despite the unusual feature of material on the arm-rest supports, is surely English - or just possibly American colonial. [2] The portrait was painted presumably late in life when, after years of ill health, Sterne had become permanently weakened by haemorrhages of the lungs. The perspective of the background is well drawn but the figure is out of proportion and suggests an artist who did not normally paint portraits. A unique mezzotint in the Berg collection, New York Public Library, on paper probably made by 1780, [3] bears neither the artist's nor the engraver's name.

Footnotesback to top

1) Horace Walpole's Correspondence, edited W. S. Lewis, 1937, 15, (Dalrymple), p 67 and note 12, recording Walpole's letter to Sir David Dalrymple on 4 April 1760, 'Warburton ... recommended the book to the bench of bishops, and told them that Mr. Sterne, the author, was the English Rabelais - they had never heard of such a writer.'
2) Letter, 1973, from P. Thornton, Keeper, Department of Furniture and Woodwork, V & A, NPG archives.
3) Prof. A. Hazen's opinion, communicated by Prof. A. Cash.

Physical descriptionback to top

Dark eyes, brown eyebrows, sunken cheeks, pallid complexion, grey wig; white neck-band, black coat and waistcoat unbuttoned, pale pink under-garment, black breeches; seated in pink damask chair at the foot of a stairway(?), behind him two doors, the further one open, and on the grey wall, left, a plaque with classical male head facing right lettered RA[BL]AIS below.

Conservationback to top

Rather thin particularly around the jaw and in two small losses above the knee where green ground(?) shows through; pin holes at corners.

Provenanceback to top

Bought, 1924, from A. Morrison who believed it to be by Hogarth when he purchased it, with a reputed Constable, at a sale in the area of Swiss Cottage. [1]

1) Mr Morrison was unable to provide the auctioneer's name or other information, correspondence 1930, NPG archives.

Reproductionsback to top

A unique mezzotint in the Berg collection, New York Public Library (see above).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977, 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 Laurence Sterne