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The Nugent Family

The Nugent Family
oil on canvas
43 x 49 1⁄2 in. (109.2 x 125.7 cm.)
in a contemporary Maratta frame
Commissioned from the artist by Robert Nugent, Lord Clare, later 1st Earl Nugent (1709-1788), and by descent in the family to,
Sir George Guy Bulwer Nugent, 4th Bt. (1892-1970), West Harling Hall, Norfolk, by whom sold circa 1935.
with Edward Speelman, London, by 1967, from whom acquired by the family of the present owners.
A. Graves, ed., The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791 and the Free Society of Artists, 1761–1783: a Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791, London, 1907, p. 291, no. 168.
Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G.C. Williamson, John Zoffany, RA his life and works : 1735-1810, London and New York, 1920, p. 223.
Dr. G.C. Williamson, English Conversation Pictures of the Eighteenth and Early 19th Centuries, New York, 1975, p. 16, pl. XLIV.
K. Baetjer and ?M. Shelley, Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-century Europe, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2011, p. 47, under no. 35.
M. Webster, Johann Zoffany 1733-1810, New Haven and London, 2011, pp. 140-141, 144-146 and 619, fig. 133 and facing page to Chapter 7.
London, The Society of Artists, 1765, no. 168.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

When first exhibited in London in 1765, this animated composition was praised by the famous aesthete Horace Walpole for its deft handling; it is this combination of vivacious movement and attention to detail that recommended the young artist to patrons from David Garrick, the greatest actor of the age, to King George and Queen Charlotte.
Born in Frankfurt, Zoffany spent time studying and working in Italy before travelling to England in 1760. He found employment initially painting clock-faces for the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault and then executing drapery for the portrait painter Benjamin Wilson. He was saved from this drudgery by Garrick, who commissioned numerous theatrical scenes, such as Garrick with Burton and Palmer in 'The Alchymist' (sold Christie’s, London, 8 July 2021, lot 55, £1,042,500). These pictures represented a new departure for the artist, who had specialised in mythological subjects before his arrival in London. As well as these critically acclaimed depictions of the stage, Zoffany became highly sought after for his conversation pieces. This genre, pioneered in the 1720s and 1730s by William Hogarth and Arthur Devis, was revolutionised by the German artist; to the rather static portraits of the earlier generation he accorded a new emphasis on familial intimacy and domestic affection, allowing the fashionable notion of sensibility to come to the fore.
Zoffany brought to his portraits the same flair for character, movement and beautifully rendered detail that had made him the undisputed master of theatrical painting in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Framed by the baroque swathes of the curtain to the upper left and with a distant view of Horse Guards’ Parade and St James’ Park to the right, The Portrait of the Nugent Family could, at first glance, be confused with a scene from a popular play, and yet this masterful composition – unique in Zoffany’s oeuvre in its use of both indoor and outdoor setting – is a glimpse into the complex family of the Anglo-Irish politician Robert Nugent (1709-1788), later 1st Earl Nugent of Westmeath.
Here the immediate drama of the family group is provided by Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Nugent. In his superb coat of gold-trimmed scarlet, the uniform of the First Foot Guards, Robert’s son by his first wife flings his arms wide to catch his young half-sister, Mary, as she leaps exuberantly from the table to greet him. Robert himself takes on a secondary role in the composition, seated behind his children, he looks up with paternal fondness at his daughter and holds a book (this latter doubtless a subtle indication of his standing as a poet and member of the literary circles that counted Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and later Oliver Goldsmith in their numbers). The fourth member of the group is Robert’s sister, Margaret or Aunt Peggy as she was known, who had come to take care of his daughter after the departure of his third wife, Elizabeth. Zoffany’s carefully composed design draws the eye from the top left, with the amused turn of Margaret’s head, down in a fluid diagonal to the outstretched black toe of Edmund’s left foot. However, this arrangement of elegant figures playfully intertwined glosses over a slightly more fractious family history.
Robert Nugent was the son of Michael Nugent and Mary, daughter of Robert Barnewall, 9th Baron Trimlestown, the leading Catholic peer in Ireland. Though he was brought up in the Roman Church, he abandoned this religion for ‘widows and money’, as the poet Richard Glover phrased it. Indeed, he was so renowned for his eye for an heiress that Horace Walpole coined the term ‘to Nugentise’ for mercenary marriages. After refusing to marry a cousin whom he had allegedly seduced, Robert first wed Lady Emilia, daughter of Peter Plunkett, 4th Earl of Fingall. On her death he made a very advantageous match with the notoriously unattractive but exceedingly wealthy Anne Craggs, daughter of the financier James Craggs and herself twice widowed. It was this marriage that fully solidified Nugent’s social (and political) standing in England, and it was perhaps to highlight his acquired position within the establishment that Nugent later chose for St James’ Park, a ready geographical symbol for English royal and military power, to be included in his family portrait. As well as her share of her father’s fortune, Anne brought the estate of her second husband John Knight, Gosfield Hall, a Tudor mansion near Braintree in Essex, to her new marriage. This house and the associated 1,600 acres of parkland were to become Nugent’s seat, and her land in Cornwall allowed for him to become MP of the constituency of St Mawes.
Nugent’s second marriage was acrimonious, and he waited only a year after Anne’s death in 1756 to remarry; this time his bride was Elizabeth, widow of the fourth Earl of Berkeley and, once again, inheritor of a large fortune. With her he had two daughters, Mary and Louise; however, by the time of Louise’s birth Elizabeth’s affections had wandered, meaning Robert never recognised his youngest daughter as his own and in 1761 mother and daughter left the Nugent family. Interestingly, for one who had carved out for himself a ‘matrimonial career’ as Mary Webster so poetically phrased it, Robert had refused to recognise the clandestine marriage of his only son to Elizabeth Vernon in 1755. Though this union resulted in three sons, Elizabeth was in an untenable position and eventually left Edmund for a French count. For this reason Zoffany’s portrait of the family is pure pictorial stagecraft, bringing together estranged players in a painting of wonderful harmony and consummate skill.

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