Hudson was one of the foremost portrait painters in England in the mid-18th century and this supremely elegant double portrait of the Ker children in van Dyck costume was executed when he was at the height of his popularity, in the early 1750s. It shows Hudson’s veneration of his seventeenth-century Flemish predecessor, Sir Anthony van Dyck, and also his debt to the work of contemporary French artists. The painting epitomises the fashionable portrait type that was in high demand amongst both the aristocracy and the rising middle classes in England.
The sitters were the sons of Robert Ker, 2nd Duke of Roxburghe (c. 1709-1755), a Scottish peer, who was created Earl Ker and Baron Ker of Wakefield in the County of York in 1722. Robert married his half-cousin, Essex Mostyn, daughter of Sir Roger Mostyn, 3rd Bt. in 1739 and had five children, two boys and three girls. The eldest son John (1740-1804), shown here seated with his right hand resting on the dog’s head, succeeded his father in 1755, as 3rd Duke of Roxburghe. John was made Lord of the Bedchamber by King George III in 1767 and a Knight of the Thistle in 1768. In 1796, he was made a Privy Counsellor, and was appointed a Knight of the Garter in 1801. He was a serious bibliophile, collecting ancient and obscure texts, and he had a particular predilection for works by Shakespeare. His library was auctioned in 1812, leading to the formation of the Roxburghe Club. When John died unmarried and childless in 1804, the titles Earl Ker and Baron Ker, which had been created for his father in 1722, became extinct. John’s younger brother Robert (1747-1781) joined the Army and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the 6th Dragoons cavalry regiment.
Hudson was part of a group of artists that gathered at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane, including William Hogarth, Allan Ramsay and Francis Hayman, who promoted Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, of which they were governors, as the first public exhibiting space for artists in London. Many of Hudson’s patrons, past and future, were fellow governors, including William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland, Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford and William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, all of whom sat to Hudson for their portraits in the 1740s, and later, John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe. Hudson was also involved in early attempts to secure royal patronage for an English Academy of Arts and exhibited with the Society of Artists.
This portrait dates to Hudson’s most successful period as a portrait painter. It was executed following his first trip to the continent, in 1748, during which he travelled to Paris, Flanders and Holland, accompanied by Hogarth, Hayman, Henry Cheere and the van Aken brothers. The playful mood of this painting shows the influence of contemporary French artists, some of whom were active in London, including Mercier and Gravelot, and by English artists working in the Rococo manner, such as Gainsborough and Hayman. Mercier’s Girl with a Cat in the National Galleries of Scotland has a similarly playful mood. While the last decade of the artist’s career, from 1758 to 1767, marked a decline in the number of portraits he painted, Hudson trained some of the most prominent portraitists of the next generation, most notably Joseph Wright of Derby and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who became the first president of the Royal Academy.