Bonington's career was brief but extremely productive. By 1828 consumption had taken over the young artist and he died at the age of 26. Born in England, he emigrated with his parents to Calais in 1817. He then moved to Paris in 1818 to study in the studio of Baron Gros, a time in which he also befriended the young Delacroix on a sketching trip to the Louvre. He first exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1824 where his work caused a sensation. His work in oil, whilst excellent, was an extension of the techniques of his genius in watercolour. In his last years he proved himself to be one of the greatest, as well as one of the earliest, English 19th Century genre painters. His influence resonated throughout England and France and was hugely influencial in the rise of a school, later called Le Boningtonisme. It refers to a group of artists whose watercolours were characterised by a freedom of handling of the medium and brilliance of colour. Amongst the artists linked to the group were: Thomas Shotter Boys, William Callow, David Roberts and David Cox.
In this present watercolour we see the fluidity of handling of the paint. Bonington employs fine, highly wrought brushstrokes and richness of colour to create depth and texture in the folds of the drapery. Feathery strokes with a dry brush create the illusion of luxurious fur on the old man's collar. He uses white heightening with bold strokes to further articulate the characters clothing. He combines all this with heavy use of gum arabic which succeeds in strengthening the shadows and increasing the jewel like effect of the overall piece.
As John Ingamell noted, the costume of the girl in this present watercolour and that of the girl in the oil of the same period Henri IV and the Ambassador of Spain, was undoubtedly inspired by a fashion plate by Abraham Boss (1602-1676). The ermine coat of The Antiquary, portrays a 16th Century Venetian man. Following Marion Spencer, the majority of authors have attributed the inspiration for the head of the old man to an engraving by Vosterman after the Portrait of the Doge Niccolo da Ponte by Tintoretto. The present composition bears similarities with Titian's Self Portrait (Berlin-Dahlem, Gemaldegalerie), this served as a model for Bonington's old man in The Message, lost today but lithographed by Delacroix around 1826.
An almost identical version of the Old Man and Child, dating from 1827 is in the Wallace Collection. Another version, was sold Christie's, London, 24 November 1998, lot 55. It was unprecedented for Bonington to execute so many versions of the same work, but the present version in the Haldimand Collection would have been available for collectors and artist's to examine and might have encouraged a number of commissions. Bonington displays the extent of his talent and his professional conscience in maintaining the same level of spontaneity and quality in all three versions of this enchanting portrayal of youth and age.
The collection of Mrs George Haldimand was originaly sold in these Rooms in March 1861. The collection was made up of a set of watercolours which had been commissioned 'to form a representative album of drawings by the best water-colour artists of the day' ( J. L. Roget, A History of the 'Old Water-Colour' Society, 1891, vol. I, bk. VI, p. 464). The albums were bought by Agnew's, where they were split up and framed. The collection in its entirety was then sold to the Clarke family, who in turn sold the collection in these Rooms in 1980, when it was purchased for the present collection.
We are grateful to Patrick Noon for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.