John Hamilton Mortimer (Eastbourne 1740-1779 London)
John Hamilton Mortimer (Eastbourne 1740-1779 London)

A Bacchanalian Dance

John Hamilton Mortimer (Eastbourne 1740-1779 London)
A Bacchanalian Dance
oil on canvas
48¼ x 66¼ in. (122.6 x 168.2 cm.)
Retained by the artist, and raffled by his widow on 2 December 1793, when won by Jane Pigott on behalf of the following
Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, K.G. (1746-1815), Norfolk House, St. James's Square, London; his sale (+), Christie's, London, 25 May 1816, lot 8, as 'A Bacchanalian Group of Nymphs and Saytrs dancing - elegantly designed' (20 gns. to the following)
J. William Steers, The Temple, London; (+), Christie's, London, 3 June 1826, lot 50 (20 gns. to Hewett).
with Simon Dickinson, London, 1999, from whom acquired by the present owner.
The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed., K. Garlick & A. Macintyre, I, New Haven and London, 1978, pp. 104-5 (2 December 1793).
J. Sunderland, 'John Hamilton Mortimer: His Life and Works', The Walpole Society, LII, 1986, p. 198, no. 157a, where dated 'c. 1770-5?'.
J. Sunderland, 'John Hamilton Mortimer's Bacchanalian Dance', The British Art Journal, 2000, I, no. 2, p. 69, illustrated.
London, British Institution, 1817, no. 6, as 'Bacchanalian Dance'.

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Lot Essay

One of relatively few large scale works by Mortimer, this is the most ambitious English subject picture of its period, circa 1770, and is the most impressive statement of the influence of the work of Nicolas Poussin on English taste of the period.

Trained under the portraitists Thomas Hudson and Robert Edge Pyne, and himself active as a portrait-painter, Mortimer was the most versatile English subject painter of his generation, and a significant influence on his fellow pupil under Hudson and enduring friend, Joseph Wright of Derby. Although he did not travel to Italy he studied pictures by the great masters of the seventeenth century with close attention. He engraved a picture by Guercino and found in Rosa the inspiration for a succession of pictures of banditti. Here Poussin was evidently Mortimer's source of inspiration, as Farington recorded in 1793 (see infra). Mortimer would seem to have known two of the Bacchanals delivered to the cháteau of Richelieu in 1636, the Triumph of Pan (London, National Gallery and Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) and the lost Triumph of Bacchus, both of which were from 1742 until 1790 in the possession of Peter Delmé, and their erstwhile companion, The Triumph of Silenus, which he could have known through the copy now in the National Gallery (no. 42).

Mortimer evidently failed to sell the picture, although at least one of his clients, Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland, would acquire outstanding works by Poussin. On 2 December 1793 a lottery was held to sell the picture on behalf of the painter's widow. The account in the diary of the landscape painter, Joseph Farington, is circumstantial:

'Called this morning on Steers in the Temple, and went with him to Mrs. Mortimers to raffle for the Picture painted by Mortimer, the subject Bacchanalians. The Picture I remember him to have painted & I think about the year 1770. - The Size 5 feet 6 Inches by 4 feet. The design formed after the model of Nicolo Poussin. The Price set upon it was 150 Guineas. There were 29 subscribers at 5 Guineas each. It was settled that whoever threw the highest number shd. pay Mrs. Mortimer for the remaining chance 5 Guineas, which wd make up the sum 150 Guineas. The Duke of Norfolk, a subscriber, not being present, Mrs. Pigot, wife of Counsellor Pigot, threw for him first, and the number proving 49 it carried the prize; the next highest number being 45 which I threw for Dr. Pitcairne & the 3d highest number 40, I threw for Mr. Hardman. - By desire of Mr. Hardman I threw for him, Mr. Daulby & Mr. Lee Philips'.

The lawyer J. William Steers, who took so key a role in the conduct of the lottery, was a notable collector of contemporary British pictures, and was, with the dealer Michael Bryan, one of the mortgagees of the French statesman Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, most of whose collection was auctioned in London in 1793-1795: this included Poussin's Bacchanal before a Herm (London, National Gallery, no. 62). When Mortimer's Bacchanal was sold after the 11th Duke of Norfolk was succeeded by a distant cousin, Steers himself was the buyer. The catalogue of his posthumous sale in 1826 fairly states that he was 'Well known for his good Taste in the Fine Arts, and particularly for his partiality to the most distinguished Painters of the English School'. The sale included Mortimer's Death of Orpheus (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art), Reynolds's head of Omai and pictures by Hogarth, Wilson and Gainsborough.

Until the rediscovery of this picture by Simon Dickinson, the composition was only known from a drawing in the Courtauld Institute, Witt Collection, which had been correctly associated with it by Sunderland (1988, pp. 197-8, no. 157, fig. 277). While Bacchic imagery is to be found in the decoration of many Palladian dining rooms in England, this picture is unique as a large-scale treatment of the subject by an English artist of the period. Mortimer was sensitive to his patrons' aspirations, as is demonstrated by the decorative works he supplied at both Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire and Radburne Hall, Derbyshire; and he must have hoped that a client would buy the Bacchanalian Dance for a dining room of appropriate scale. That he failed to sell the picture in his lifetime is itself a testament to the very courage of his tribute to Poussin.

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