Painted in 1783, this picture of John Truman and his younger brother Henry is an exceptionally fine example of Gainsborough’s celebrated late style, displaying the bravura handling that established his reputation as arguably the greatest portraitist from the golden age of British painting.
Commissioned by the sitters' parents, the picture completed a series of portraits that Gainsborough had executed for the brothers’ great-grandfather, Sir Benjamin Truman (c.1700-1780), the head of the eponymous family brewery. Truman, who was knighted in 1760 on the accession of King George III for his loans to the government, had sat to the artist in circa 1774 for the full-length portrait, described by Kenneth Clark as ‘one of the two finest Gainsbroughs in existence’ (Belsey, op. cit., pp. 824-6, no. 887), which now hangs in Tate Britain, London (fig. 1). In 1777, Truman commissioned two further portraits of his granddaughters: the magnificent full-length of Frances, Mrs William Villebois, the mother of the boys in the present portrait, which was sold in these Rooms, 5 July 2011, lot 10, for £6,537,250 (fig. 2; private collection); and a full-length of her younger sister, Henrietta Read, later Mrs John Meares (fig. 3; San Marino, Huntington Art Collections). Following Truman’s death in 1780, the three portraits were removed from his country estate Popes, in Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire, and hung in the drawing room of the Director’s House, next to the Black Eagle (Truman’s) Brewery in Brick Lane, London, where they were later joined by the present picture. As his only male heirs, this portrait of his great-grandsons was intended to represent the dynastic continuity in the running of the brewery.
The sitters were the sons of William Villebois (d. 1785), a dancing master, and Frances Read (1757-after 1817), daughter of Henry Read of Crowood, Ramsbury, Wiltshire, and his wife, Frances, only daughter of Sir Benjamin Truman. Both children were educated at Christ Church, Oxford, matriculating in 1790 and 1795 respectively. Truman’s desire, made clear in his will, that his success with the family brewery be built on by his great-grandsons, was not realised - the brothers showed little interest in the business, regarding it as ‘a limitless supply of income’ (Belsey, op. cit., p. 853). While John died childless, Henry, who lived at Marham Hall, Norfolk, had one illegitimate son, also called Henry (1807-1886). It was following the latter’s death, and at his request, that the double portrait was acquired in June 1886 by his widow Maria for the then colossal sum of £8,000.
The dating of 1783 for this work, when the boys were aged ten and six, was first proposed by Ellis Waterhouse (op. cit.), and subsequently followed by Hugh Belsey (op. cit.), the latter noting the significance of the prominent positioning of the ten of hearts, the card in the foreground nearest the viewer, and the six of clubs on the step beneath the leg of the younger brother. Card playing had been a popular motif in seventeenth century Dutch genre pictures, in which children were often depicted imitating the morally dubious habits of adults. However, in this picture, the house of cards seems to allude to the transience of childhood and the fragility of human ambition. The motif had been used by Hogarth in 1730 for his conversation piece of Children at Play I: The House of Cards (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) and, in circa 1743, for one of the supper-box pictures Francis Hayman painted for Vauxhall Gardens (Christie’s, London, 9 December 2015, lot 151), a work for which scholars have suggested that the young Gainsborough contributed at least one of the figures.
This portrait beautifully exhibits the remarkably free handling that defined Gainsborough’s painting in the 1780s, and which prompted scholars to draw parallels between the artist’s late style with that of Titian. Michael Rosenthal has observed that Gainsborough’s late paintings, like the Venetian’s, are ‘perceptually anarchic close to, but at a proper distance reveal astonishing illusionism’ (op. cit., p. 120). The ‘Titianesque’ quality that Rosenthal (ibid.) ascribed to Gainsborough’s celebrated masterpiece Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs fighting (London, Kenwood House, The Iveagh Bequest), which was painted in the same year as the present portrait, can equally be found in details such as the fluid treatment of the elder brother’s shirt and the masterfully impressionistic landscape. Gainsborough’s admiration for the High Renaissance painter is confirmed through the copy he made, in circa 1780, of The Vendramin Family (fig. 4; Cumbria, Muncaster Castle, Pennington Family Collection), the picture now in the National Gallery, London, but which was then at Northumberland House when in the collection of Hugh Smithson, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who had himself sat to the artist in 1771 (see J. Yarker in Belsey, op. cit., p. 1001, no. 1082). It is tempting to imagine that Gainsborough’s composition for his portrait of the Truman brothers was inspired by the informal arrangement of the youngest members of the Vendramin family, shown seated on the steps of the altar at the far right, and in deliberate contrast to the hierarchical placement of their elders. Titian’s picture would certainly have been held in high regard by Gainsborough, having previously been in the collection of van Dyck, the artist he admired above all others, and whose name he purportedly invoked on his deathbed with the famous words: ‘We are all going to Heaven, and Vandycke is of the company’ (W.T. Whitley, Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1915, p. 306).