Joseph Henry of Straffan, Co. Kildare (1727-1796) was the second son of Hugh Henry, of Lodge Park, Straffan, a Dublin merchant and banker, and his wife Anne Leeson, sister of Joseph Leeson (1711-1783), later 1st Earl of Milltown. He inherited the estate of Straffan in 1743 and was Member of Parliament for Longford (1761-1768), for Kildare borough (1770-1776), and High Sheriff for Kildare in 1771. He was also a considerable connoisseur and patron of the arts and one of the most erudite Irishmen to set out on the Grand Tour in the middle of the 18th Century.
Henry's interest in the arts may have been partly influenced by his maternal uncle. Joseph Leeson, later 1st Earl of Milltown, was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland, having inherited an enormous fortune from his father, made in brewing and property speculation, on the latter's death in 1741. He was also a great collector and patron of art. Soon after inheriting, he had purchased a large property in county Wicklow which included the townland of Russeltown, where he commissioned the building of the magnificent house now known as Russborough. He then went on the Grand Tour twice: firstly to Florence and Rome (1744-1745) and then again to Rome (1750-51) partly in order to acquire appropriate works of art to adorn his new house which he did with great discernment. In 1899 his descendant the Dowager Countess of Milltown donated a large part of the contents of Russborough to the National Gallery of Ireland and the collection is now an important part of the Gallery's collection (see The Milltowns: A family reunion, catalogue to the exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, 1997).
Joseph Henry joined his uncle on the second of his Grand Tours together with his uncle's elder son, Joseph (1730-1801), later 2nd Earl of Milltown. In Rome, where they lived in a house near the Piazza di Spagna, Joseph Henry and his cousin soon became a significant part of the British and Irish community which revolved around the Spanish Steps. Among their fellow tourists were several Irish gentlemen, such as James Caulfield, 4th Viscount and later 1st Earl Charlemont (1728-99) and Thomas Dawson (1725-1813) of Dawson's Grove, son of the banker and alderman of Dublin, Richard Dawson, who was later created Viscount Cremorne, as well as numerous British gentlemen and artists.
Henry already seems to have acquired quite a reputation in Ireland before his departure, as an enquiry of him in a letter from Richard Marlay, in Dublin, to his friend Lord Charlemont in Rome, dated February 1750, makes clear:
'is Jo:Henry at Rome now? Is he as fine a gentleman as ever ... or is he more affected since he has trod on classic ground, seen every court, heard every King declare his royal sense of Operas and the fair'.
While in Rome Henry seems to have lived up to his reputation and proved himself both an informed patron and a sophisticated collector. He was portrayed by Pompeo Batoni, the leading portraitist of his day in Rome, to whom his uncle had already sat on his previous visit (now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), as was his cousin (the former now in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore). He was also portrayed by Pier Leone Ghezzi in a splendid pen and ink caricature, among the ruins of ancient Rome clutching a guidebook together with some of his companions which is inscribed 'Guiseppe Henry Inglese, huomo assai erudite nella anticita e en Lettera' with a mount bearing the words 'Cavalliere Inglese dilettnate della Antichita' (fig. 1; now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Another caricature by Ghezzi of Henry, with Lord Midleton, John Martin, and Lord Bruce of Tottenham, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Henry was also evidently impressed by the talent of the young Joshua Reynolds, who was then in Rome, and commissioned from him his most celebrated cariacature The Parody of the School of Athens (see fig.3; now in the National Gallery of Ireland; D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, New Haven and London, 2000, I, p. 491, no. 1962, II, fig. 61). In the composition, which is based on Raphael's famous fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Joseph Henry appears in replacement of 'Diogenes the Cynic' reclining on the steps with his back to the protagonists, in the midst of a throng of cognoscenti. His uncle and cousin are also included in the erudite parody, the former in the centre of the back row with a quizzing glass as 'Plato', the latter, a tall figure with a prominent nose, in the back row, right of centre, as 'a follower of Aristotle'. Several other of Henry's Irish acquaintances also appear; Lord Charlemont, second from the left seated in the foreground, and Thomas Dawson, most probably as the seated disciple in the 'Euclidian' group in the foreground to the right. Henry also appears in another smaller caricature by Reynolds, seated with a folio open at an engraved plate of the Cloaca Maxima (the ancient Roman sewer) together with his uncle, his cousin, and Lord Bruce, later Earl of Ailesbury (see fig. 2; Mannings, op.cit., I, p. 492, no. 1964).
Although he was evidently amused by cariacature, it was far from Henry's only interest. He also commissioned from Richard Wilson a pair of views around Tivoli (now in the National Gallery of Ireland) and he ordered four paintings by Vernet, through Matthew Brettingham, in May 1752, after the Leeson party had left Rome for Ireland.
After the departure of his uncle and cousin for home, Joseph Henry continued his own Grand Tour until 1761. Unfortunately little is known of his exact movements as none of his letters or papers have so far come to light and this is particularly true of the period between his departure from Rome in 1752 and his appearance at Pisa in 1755. According to Dr. James Tyrell, who seems to have acted as Henry's agent in Florence, Henry spent the summer following the departure of his uncle and cousin in Marseilles 'being afraid of the heats of Spain' . He then seems to have set out for Spain in early October. That he went to Spain is confirmed by a lengthy essay that he later wrote for a Spanish Travel book published by Don Pedro de La Puente in 1773, which mostly deals with the Escorial and it treasures, on Raphael's Madonna del Pesce, which as Don Pedro informs us in his introduction Henry had seen while in Spain in 1754. Joseph McDonnell (op.cit) comments that as far as he is aware the essay is 'The only extant text on an Italian renaissance painting ... published during the eighteenth century by an Irishman on the Grand Tour' and demonstrates Henry's 'acute eye and refined connoiseurship' and 'amply justifies Henry's reputation for taste and erudition among his contemporaries'. Certainly the author Richard Twiss was later so impressed by it that when he came to write his book Travels though Portugal and Spain in 1772 and 1773, published in 1775, he included the essay in it.
While in Spain Henry also commissioned paintings by Antonio Joli including a view of Aranjuez and Madrid and a Bullfight, of which Joli engraved a plate for him, and also views in and around Naples. In 1755 Henry returned to Italy where, in January at Pisa, he met Robert Adam at Pisa in January 1755 who described him, in a letter to his mother, as 'a clever, sensible fellow' who had 'seen much of the world to purpose'. Adam met him again in Florence on 14 May 1757, when in the company of Sir Horace Mann, the British representative to the grand duke of Tuscany, Henry spent four hours at his lodgings. Adam described him as 'an Irish gentleman of great estate and esteemed traveller of most taste that has been abroad these many years' (see J. Fleming, Robert Adam and his circle, London, 1962, p. 232). Among Henry's acquisitions in Florence was a copy in pastel by the English artist Charles Martin of the Madonna della sedia with copies of the Medici Venus and the Dancing Faun which he presented to the Royal Dublin Society Schools in 1786. On 11 January 1761 he was made a member of the prestigious Academia del Disegno in Florence. He then left Italy for England later the same year as can be gleaned from a letter from Lady Kildare to her husband which gave the news that 'Little Joe: Henry is come to England; Lord Charlemont ask'd my leave to present him to me'. Presumably he returned to Ireland shortly afterwards as he was elected a Member of Parliament for Longford in the same year.
In 1764 Henry married Lady Catherine Rawdon, daughter of the 1st Earl of Moira, in Dublin. Although Straffan was his country seat in Co. Kildare, Henry also occupied a Dublin house attached to, or part of, the former banking premises of his father in Henry Street, where he apparently kept his art collection acquired on the Grand Tour. Henry's collection came to public notice in 1776 when Richard Twiss published his well known and controversial A Tour of Ireland in 1775 in which Henry's collection is given greater coverage than any other in the country. Little is known of Henry's life back in Ireland. His independence of mind is nevertheless evident in a report in the Hibernian Journal in 1788 that he had built a handsome Catholic chapel near his seat at Straffan at his own expense 'for accommodation of persons professing the Roman Catholic Religion in his neighbourhood' and according to local tradition he also presented a painting to the church. There is little record of him afterwards until his death at his house in Henry Street, Dublin, in 1796.
This portrait which was executed circa 1745 was painted not long after Joseph Henry had inherited and some five years before his departure for Italy. Hayman was then approaching the zenith of his artistic powers and attracting commissions from patrons as discerning as David Garrick, whom he portrayed in the same year in a double portrait with William Windham of Felbrigg (B. Allen, op.cit., p. 91, no. 10). Brian Allen comments:
'Hayman portrays Joseph Henry as an earnest young scholar. The open bookcase in the background reveals expensive quarto and folio leatherbound volumes and Henry evidently saw himself as a man of some erudition ... This is one of the first occasions when Hayman employs the relaxed cross-legged pose which was to become his stock-in-trade and I have argued that the pose and the treatement of the draperies is much influenced by Roubiliac's celebrated statue of Handel, unveiled in Vauxhall Gardens in the spring of 1738.' (op.cit.)