For a sense of just how popular pastel portraits were in the 18th century, consider an anecdote from the biography of Hugh Douglas Hamilton. It’s said the London pastellist was so busy he ‘could scarcely execute all the orders that came in’ and took to ‘tossing [clients’] guineas among… the broken crayons’ on the floor of his studio in Pall Mall.
Pastel consists of powdered pigment that’s mixed with a binder to form sticks in various colours. Those sticks, often referred to as crayons, are then applied to paper. The earliest examples of the medium date back to the Renaissance, though the golden age came in the 18th century, initially in France.
In 1701, Joseph Vivien became the first pastellist to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. Just 45 years later, reviewing the prestigious Salon exhibition at the Louvre, art critic Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne observed that ‘every artist now has a crayon in his hand’ and ‘the public embraces [their work] with a frenzy’.
The medium was soon as popular in Britain as it was in France. Alongside Hugh Douglas Hamilton, two of the country’s leading pastellists were Daniel Gardner and Francis Cotes — and works by all three appear in the Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours sale in London on 2 July.
The reason for pastel’s rise was the same on both sides of the English Channel. It was a cheaper, smaller, more quickly-executed alternative to oil paint, which made it the perfect medium for portraits of the ever-growing section of the population that was middle class.
The unique, optical properties of pastel were also key to its success. It emits a light far brighter than most other surfaces, with many 18th-century viewers speaking of the distinctive ‘bloom’ that enlivened a sitter’s complexion. Cotes, admittedly with some bias, said pastel works were ‘luminous and beautiful beyond all other pictures’.
Here, then, was a literally brilliant update on traditional portraiture. Several treatises were soon being written on it, notable examples including John Russell’s Elements of Painting with Crayons (1772) in England, and P. R. de Chaperon’s Treaty on Painting with Pastel (1788) in France. Some artists took to making their own sticks, though most just used readymade examples that flooded the market.
The son of a shoemaker, Daniel Gardner was born in Kendal, in the area of north England now known as Cumbria. In his late teens, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools, where his teachers included Benjamin West and Johann Zoffany.
Though he made the occasional oil painting, it was for pastel portraits that Gardner found fame. Initially, he set himself up in direct competition with Hamilton, producing the type of small oval heads that the latter specialised in. The upcoming sale features an example by both artists: Portrait of Annabella Powlett Smith by Gardner (shown below) and Portrait of Robert Cunninghame of Mount Kennedy, Baron Rossmore by Hamilton (shown above).
‘In time, Gardner went on to develop more ambitious compositions too,’ says Neil Jeffares, author of The Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800. ‘He produced full-length figures and family groups — often in woodland settings, with a sense of fun and dazzling colour schemes that were a breath of fresh air to British portraiture.’
Gardner forged relationships with numerous families, who became regular clients. Children from two of those families, the Townshends and the Cornwallises, are depicted together in Portrait of Viscount Brome, Lady Mary Cornwallis and Miss Caroline Townshend as children, with a spaniel in a wooded landscape.
In truth, pastel painting always had a handful of opponents in the British art establishment — most infamously, Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, who said it was ‘what ladies do [for] their own amusement’. He insisted oil painting remained pre-eminent.
‘Such antipathy only increased in the wake of the Seven Years’ War [between Britain and France from 1756 to 1763],’ says Jeffares. ‘A cultural resistance to all things French emerged, and pastel started to be seen by some in that negative light.’
Gardner, however, continued his portraits undeterred. He honed a highly original technique, in which only the faces were completed in pure pastel. For figures’ bodies and backgrounds, he preferred a kind of gouache, made by grinding down his sticks, adding brandy, and applying the mixture with a brush.
‘Gardner was an innovative painter, who had few peers when it came to sheer exuberance in his pictures’ — Neil Jeffares
The result: an allure and a precision that concentrated the eye on the subject’s face — the most important part of the portrait — before allowing it to move steadily outwards to the less striking areas.
Gardner died in 1805, by which time pastel paintings had fallen out of fashion. They had become associated with the frivolity of the Ancien Régime: light, bright embodiments of a Rococo style that had since been superseded by sober Neoclassicism. Despite a brief revival in the hands of the Impressionists, pastels would never again reach the popularity they’d had in the 18th century.
The signs are, though, that awareness is now growing of the medium’s one-time importance. In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum in New York put on a major exhibition called The Rise of Pastel in the Eighteenth Century. Four years later, Jean-Etienne Liotard, arguably France’s finest pastellist, was the subject of a retrospective at London’s Royal Academy and Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery.
As for Gardner, after decades in the shadows, his market has seen a marked upturn of late. In 2013, a group portrait of the Sturt family of Crichel House in Dorset sold for £134,000 (two years before the auction record for a work by the artist was set, of £233,000).
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‘Gardner was an innovative painter, who had few peers when it came to sheer exuberance in his pictures,’ says Jeffares. ‘In his own day, he boasted a large clientele of satisfied customers; now, in ours, he is in the process of being appreciated anew.’