Friday, November 18, 2011

"A masterly portrait, and very like"

I have been thinking quite a lot about portraiture lately, specifically an oddly widespread trope that crops up regularly in many British sources roughly stretching from the 1760s until the late Regency. I have a strong feeling, though it is only a hunch, that the watercolourist, printmaker, and author William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) (who published under the bizarre pseudonym of Ephraim Hardcastle) was well aware of it too when, sketching a semi-historical vignette in a very long and rambling article for Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (“The Greater and Lesser Stars of Old Pall Mall,” Vol. 23, No. 138, June 1841, p. 686) Pyne imagined the Prince of Wales dining with a group of gentlemen at Carlton House, including the Duke of Norfolk, and commenting on a caricature of the Duke by James Gillray. “It really is,” says the Prince, “a masterly portrait, and very like.” Portrait and likeness are two separate things, and the quality of the portrait appears to relate only partly to the accuracy of its likeness to the sitter. This sounds a good deal more familiar to us than it might otherwise where we sit at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, yet writing from Poundisford Park in Somerset to his son and namesake, a young grand tourist temporarily residing in Rome, Ralph William Grey could remark of his son’s portrait by Pompeo Batoni that it is “a very good portrait, and very like you” (Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Björn Kerber, Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 37–38). I seem to recall a similar formulation crossing the lips of an especially garrulous character somewhere in Jane Austen, so it is safe to say that this figure of speech was widespread, but was it taken seriously, and should we also? There are grounds for caution. Pyne has the Prince of Wales utter it, at a time when the Prince’s posthumous reputation could not have sunk lower, and in relation to an object that was demonstrably not a portrait, or not at least a portrait as the term was ranked among the genres in the Academy of the forties, or indeed at any time immediately prior to, during, or after the Regency. In other words, you could argue that Pyne is actually mocking the formulation of “a masterly portrait, and very like,” regarding it in something of the same light as those silly eyes that follow you around the room. Likewise Jane Austen, and, in the many other places in which it recurs, and in Mr. Grey’s letter to son, there would appear to be grounds for consigning the phrase to the dense thicket of mere conventions. Yet even if that is true, the phrase tells us a lot about the accepted conventions of portraiture in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain, and the assumption that the parent concept of portrait was not by any means the same thing as likeness. Useful, I think.

No comments:

Post a Comment