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James Thomson 1700–1748A Life$

James Sambrook

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780198117889

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198117889.001.0001

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(p.285) Appendix: Portraits of Thomson

(p.285) Appendix: Portraits of Thomson

James Thomson 1700–1748
Oxford University Press

The earliest authentic likeness of Thomson is in the engraving of 1761 by Basire, which was used as the frontispiece of Thomson's Works (1762), volume i. It is inscribed ‘James Thomson/Aetatis XXV and ‘Aikman pinxit’. See Plate 1. This engraving was copied in smaller sizes by several engravers for later eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century editions of Thomson's poems. The original portrait by William Aikman of which the Basire engraving was a copy seems now to be lost. There is an unsigned undated eighteenth-century oil copy of the Basire engraving at the Huntington Library, no. 20.23: see Plate 3. This portrait has not been cleaned, but the bust seen dimly to the left of the sitter's head is undoubtedly Janus, an appropriate accessory for the poet of the seasons.

There are two other early portraits to which the names of Thomson and Aikman are linked. One is a signed chalk drawing in Edinburgh University Library, attached to which is an inscription by Aikman's grand-daughter: ‘A sketch of Mr James Thomson the Poet done about the year 1720, by William Aikman, Painter. Anne Forbes.’ This drawing is reproduced as a likeness of Thomson in Grant (frontispiece), but the identification of the sitter has been questioned: see a correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement (1942), 421, 429, 469, 547,and583.John Kerslake, in Early Georgian Portraits (1977),i.278,declares that ‘the sitter's features are not easily reconciled with Thomson's as they appear in any reasonably well-authenticated likeness’. I agree.

A less improbable likeness is the oval oil portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, no. 331. See Plate 2. This has been cut down from a larger canvas; according to the gallery's catalogues it was once signed by Aikman and dated 1720 on the reverse, but I learn from Dr Iain G. Brown of the National Library of Scotland, where the painting is on long-term loan, that it has been relined and laid down on board, so that no trace of any old inscription is now visible. Kerslake (loc. cit.) says that it ‘derives probably from the [Aikman/Basire] engraving’ of 1761, but James Holloway, author of the only monograph on Aikman, tells me that the portrait seems to him to have been painted much earlier than 1761, ‘possibly in 1720 as the inscription suggests’. It should be added that Mr Holloway is by no means sure that this painting is by Aikman. The pose and costume of the sitter are conventional, so a general similarity in these respects cannot be taken as proof of a direct relationship between this oval and the, so-far unlocated, Aikman original from which Plates 1 and 3 are derived. The features of the sitters, however, have enough resemblance to allow at least the possibility that the oval represents Thomson a few years younger than he appears in the engraving.

A second painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (no. 642) is a possible likeness of Thomson in his twenties: see Plate 4. This is an oil, signed and dated 1726 by John Vanderbank, which could perhaps represent the same sitter as the Aikman/Basire engraving. Another oil portrait, signed and dated 1730 by Vanderbank, is said to be of (p.286) Thomson. It turned up in a catalogue of Charles J. Sawyer, Ltd., booksellers, in February 1937, and at Christies forty years later; I do not know its present whereabouts. To judge by the catalogue reproduction is bears very little resemblance to any authentic likeness of Thomson.

The first Thomson portrait concerning which we have a contemporary reference is the one by Stephen Slaughter that is the subject of verses by G. W. (probably Gilbert West) in the Gentleman's Magazine, December 1736, p. 743: ‘On Mr Thomson's Picture drawn by Mr Slaughter, with the Figure of Liberty in his Hand, as described by him in his Poem on that Subject’. No drawing has been traced, but there is in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon an oil painting of this subject, signed by Slaughter and dated 1736: see Plate 5. ‘G. W.’ s‘poem and the paper in the sitter's hand are strong enough evidence that the Mellon oil is a likeness of Thomson. There is a small eighteenth-century stipple-engraved print of Thomson with the figure of Liberty, evidently derived from this Slaughter portrait-type, in the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings (Anderton Collection, volume 98). In this print the head, facing the same way as in the Slaughter oil, is set in an oval frame with an ornamental surround. The inscription reads Tainted by Wilson. Ornamented by Craig. Engraved by Chapman’. This trio might perhaps be Benjamin Wilson, William Marshall Craig, and John Chapman, all of whom were active in the 1780s.

The ‘Wilson-Craig-Chapman’ print is reproduced by McKillop in Letters, facing p. 68, accompanied by the puzzling note, on p. x, that it is ‘said to be engraved from a painting by Hudson’. It has been claimed that James Craig, Thomson's nephew, who died in 1795, had in his possession Thomson's ‘original portrait painted by Hudson, for Mr Millar, the bookseller, which was presented to him by Lady Grant [Millar's widow]’ (The Seasons, with an Original Life of the Author by Robert Heron, Perth (1793),p. xlix, note). This assertion, made nearly fifty years after Thomson's death, may well be correct about the commission but wrong about the artist. Millar invested a large sum of money in Thomson and Liberty, so it is quite possible that he would commission a painting of his investment, but by Slaughter, not Hudson. No further references to a Hudson portrait of Thomson have come my way and no such portrait has been traced.

Stephen Slaughter may have painted Thomson's likeness twice, for there is in Leicester City Art Gallery another oil portrait said to be of Thomson and attributed to Slaughter. See plate 6. On the back of the canvas is an inscription by the eleventh Earl of Buchan: ‘Portrait of Thomson, the Poet, by Slaughter. Procured for the Earl of Buchan by his friend Richard Cooper, Esqr. Engraver.’ This Cooper could have been either of the engravers of that name: the father, who died in 1764, or the son, who was born about 1740 and died in 1814. One of the later eighteenth-century small versions of the Basire engraving after Aikman was engraved by R. Cooper. The portrait in Leicester Art Gallery bears hardly any resemblance to the painting in the Mellon Collection, but its attribution seems fairly sound (see A. C. Sewter ‘Stephen Slaughter’, The Connoisseur, 121 (1948), 12) and the general cast of the sitter's features can just be reconciled with authentic likenesses of Thomson.

The latest of those authentic likenesses, like the earliest, is a Basire engraving of 1761. This one was used as the frontispiece of volume ii of Thomson's Works (1762): it is inscribed ‘James Thomson/Aetatis XL VP and is after a lost painting by John Patoun.

(p.287) See Plate 11. There are oil copies in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, no. 794 (see Plate 12) and the National Portrait Gallery, no. 11, this second one presented to the gallery in 1857 by Thomson's ‘grandneice, Miss Bell’. Another copy, dated 1774, by John Medina the younger, is at Edinburgh University: see Dr Talbot Rice, The University Portraits (Edinburgh, 1957), p. 202.

A version of the Patoun portrait in which the sitter is wearing a necktie was once at Hagley. It was presumably painted for George Lyttelton, and, according to one of Lyttelton's descendants was said by William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, to be ‘beastly like’: see Peter Cunningham's edition of Johnson's Lives of the English Poets (1854), iii, 235, n. 39. (Cunningham writes Aikman in error for Patoun.) This portrait was destroyed in the Hagley fire of 1925, but a photograph of it is reproduced in Kerslake, op. cit., plate 796. Peter Cunningham (loc. cit.) refers to Patoun's original ‘drawing’ at Culloden House, but the present whereabouts of any such drawing are not known.

The Patoun portrait type may have served as the model for a marble oval bas-relief head and shoulders in the National Portrait Gallery, no. 4896. It is incised: ‘Scotland gave me birth /England a Grave/I Sung the Seasons’. It was carved by an unidentified sculptor after Thomson's death, for an outdoor setting: see Kerslake, op. cit., i. 278 and plate 797. The only other surviving sculpture said to represent Thomson is the seated figure in Roman dress on the monument to the poet carved by Michael Henry Spang after a design by Robert Adam, set up in Westminster Abbey in 1762.