James Dawkins (b. 1760) was the nephew of the James Dawkins who was famously portrayed by Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) in the painting of Dawkins and Wood discovering Palmyra, 1758. He was in Florence on 13 December 1783 (see lot 12) and went on to Rome where this work seems to have been executed. Crookshank and the Knight of Glin suggest that the setting for the present portrait is the Villa Albani, home of the art-loving Cardinal Alessandro Albani, and where the librarian was the great antiquarian and writer on classical art, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768).
Visual records of Albani's collection are limited and it has not been possible to identify the sarcophagus or friezes upon which the sitter reclines. It has been suggested by Ian Jenkins of the British Museum, that for the present pastel, Hamilton may well have drawn upon a number of images, including the antiquities he had studied on his travels and publications that he possessed. Hamilton is known to have owned the first few volumes of Le Antichit di Ercolano, illustrating the discoveries of Herculaneum (see I. Jenkins and K. Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes, exhibition catalogue, London, 1996, p. 262).
Hamilton is thought to have left Dublin for Italy in 1779 but his first recorded address in Rome was in 1782. The Hamilton family moved to Florence in 1783, where Hamilton is thought to have executed the oval portrait of Dawkins (see lot 12). They remained in Florence for a few years and Hamilton became a member of the Florentine Academy. In 1784 he spent some time in Venice and on his return to Rome established a friendship with the sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826). Together with the Flaxmans, Hamilton and his family visited Naples and Pompeii, and surviving drawings indicate a trip to Paestum and Sicily.
Through James Byers (1734-1817), the Scottish architect and cicerone, Hamilton received many introductions to important patrons. His most important commission of the Roman years, contemporary with the present pastel, is Canova and Henry Tresham looking at Canova's Cupid and Psyche (see A. Crookshank and the Knight of Glin op. cit., p. 71, no. 84, and dust jacket). This and the present pastel are fine examples of the work Crookshank and the Knight of Glin discuss when they wrote 'The simplicity of the setting, the gravity of the composition shows that Rome, its antiquities, and its contemporary neo-classical artists had all profoundly affected the development of Hamilton's art' (Irish Arts Review, op. cit., p. 69).