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THREE SETS OF PORTRAIT GROUPS, ENGLISH SCHOOL
This series of canvases (from a set of 12) showing prominent historical figures from the worlds of science, religion, philosophy, architecture, literature and poetry would seem very likely, on account of their format and their subject matter, to have once adorned a library as a decorative frieze. Series such as the present pictures were extremely fashionable in English libraries during the first half of the eighteenth Century.
The set may originally have been part of a larger series as, when it was sold in 1879, the next lot in the sale included another six panels described as 'six smaller ditto with medallions'. What would appear to have been one of this set of six panels was included in the English Portrait Exhibition at the Sabin Galleries in 1970, as no.11, and showed in the centre a bust of Sir Isaac Newton flanked by other figures. This presumably explains why the numbering of the individual figures in each of the canvases does not appear to relate the pictures clearly to each other (the Sabin canvas had similar numbering beneath two of its three figures). Most, but not all the figures represented are readily identifiable. Those that are identifiable testify to a clear intellectual plan underpinning the commission of this ambitious decorative scheme.
Many of the figures included in the series are important figures from the late 17th Century and early 18th Century. They include Kings, men of the Church and theologians, humanists, astronomers, architects, philosophers, poets and men of literature. There is a particularly strong representation from among the ranks of the members of the 'Royal Society of London for improving Natural Knowledge', usually known as the Royal Society, which had been founded in 1660, at Gresham College in London, by King Charles II. This apparent coincidence would appear to shed light on the nature of the interests and intellectual milieu of the unknown patron who commissioned it, whose portrait seems likely to be included in the scheme. The set cannot date from before 1741, on account of the inclusion of a portrait of Bishop Benjamin Hoadley clearly derived from the life-size portrait of that year by Hogarth (Tate Britain). The more or less contemporary figures who dominate the compositions are shown in the context of other figures from the then near or distant past whose inclusion seems to give a sense of historical perspective to their own interests, endeavours, and debates, and to acknowledge both the debt which contemporary understanding owed to the past and to serve as a comment on historical progress.
The cycle was at one time believed to have been painted by John Vanderbank (1694-1739), although it has also recently been thought that they may be the hand of Francis Hayman (1708-1776). Although attribution remains elusive, their subject matter gives a clear indication of the taste and influences of the series' patron.