'From his own Country [Italy, Soldi] set out to the Holyland which he had great desire to see, in his way there or back at Aleppo he became acquainted with some English Merchants whose pictures having drawn with much approbation they advisd him to come to England' (G. Vertue, Notebooks 3, c. 1742, p. 109).
Soldi's patrons can be identified as the representatives of the rich Levant trading houses of London who were living and working in Aleppo, Syria's ancient trading capital and the most important trading post of the English Levant Company. Family papers and business records reveal an extraordinarily vivid and detailed picture of their daily lives in Aleppo, and their first-hand experience of life within the Ottoman Empire.
Established in 1581, the English Levant Company had a monopoly on trade between England and the Ottoman Empire. Run by a Court of Governors in London and represented by the English Ambassador in Constantinople, its chief trading post was Aleppo. The city commanded the great trans-desert trading routes between East and West. English woollen broadcloth was bartered chiefly for silk from Antioch, Tripoli, Beirut and most desirably, Persia, as well as spices, carpets, mohair yarn and other exotic merchandise.
An 80-mile journey over the Amanus mountains from its port Scanderoon (Iskenderun), Aleppo, with its high citadel, domes and minarets, must have presented an exciting prospect. Within the city walls however, the narrow streets appeared gloomy and austere to Europeans. Infection and disease, including plague, presented a real danger. The English lived within the Khan al-Gumruk, which was situated on the main thoroughfare of the covered, labyrinth-like souk in the heart of the city. A masterpiece of commercial Ottoman architecture, Khan al-Gumruk survives today and is still occupied by textile merchants. The English merchants of Aleppo adopted Turkish dress and established trading relationships with native merchants, but largely kept to their own society. Based in Aleppo for up to seven years or more, the merchants were always in search of entertainment; they visited archaeological sites, including Palmyra and the Dead Cities, hunted and dined together.
Relatively few of Soldi's portraits of this rich, powerful and privileged merchant class are recorded. John Ingamells, in his checklist of Soldi's works in the Walpole Society (XLVII, 1980), lists only three portraits from the artist's Aleppan period: two three-quarter-lengths of Thomas Sheppard (signed and dated 1733(?) and 1735/6 respectively; both location unknown; ibid., p. 15, nos. 57-8); and a portrait of an unidentified gentleman, small-whole length, with moustache, wearing Turkish trousers and slippers (signed and dated 1735; private collection; ibid., p. 17, no. 69). Research into Soldi's portrait of the English merchant Henry Lannoy Hunter (fig. 1; c. 1733-6), acquired by Tate in 2005, has helped put Soldi's early career in the Levant into sharper focus. While the Tate exhibition on Soldi and the English Levant merchants in 2008, has brought to light more works from this early, formative period.
The sitter in this portrait has not been firmly identified. One suggestion is the Aleppo factor Richard Salwey, who was in Aleppo in 1733 and did have his portrait painted by Soldi (private collection); however, comparison with the sitter's likeness in this portrait is not compelling. Salwey had a distinguished Levant Company pedigree; his grandfather, Major Richard Salwey, had been appointed Ambassador at Constantinople in 1654 (although he never took up the post); both his uncles and his father had been Levant merchants, and his brother, Theophilus, had been made free of the Company in 1722.
Whoever the sitter may be, he is clearly wealthy and keen to convey this through his exotic and sumptuous attire. Various accounts survive of the English Aleppo merchants adopting Turkish dress and inventories of the goods of those who died in Aleppo include Turkish fur vests, dolemans (long, buttoned silk waistcoats), shacksheers (wide trousers) and the caps and sashes of turbans, as well as western hats, wigs and coats. The lavish crimson-dyed, fur-lined gown in this portrait showcases Soldi's bold use of colour and his dexterity at rendering different textures. It was precisely these talents that would set him apart from the old and middle-aged guard of native portrait painters in England, including Richardson, Dahl, Jervas, Seeman and Vanderbank, and secure him immediate success as a society portrait painter on his arrival in London in around 1736.
We are grateful to Tabitha Barber, Tate Britain, curator of Traders in the Levant: Andrea Soldi and the English Merchants of Aleppo, for her assistance in cataloguing this painting.