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‘John Smart (1741 – 1811), A Genius Magnified’
Philip Mould, Dover Street.
It is always a pleasure to wander around Philip Mould’s gallery in Dover Street; its calm, elegant surroundings are matched only by the standard of work the gallery acquires for sale. Philip Mould specializes in portraits of the highest quality and his current selling exhibition is a demonstration of how highly his gallery is regarded.
‘John Smart (1741–1811), A Genius Magnified’ is an exhibition of 45 portrait miniatures and drawings painted by John Smart; they have come to Philip Mould via a German collector. Acquired over a couple of decades, this is the most comprehensive collection of Smart’s work to come to sale and while the gallery would prefer to sell to one buyer and keep the collection intact, the demand for the individual works will almost certainly mean that they will go to the many collectors and admirers of Smart’s meticulous technical skill.
The portraits in the collection cover nearly five decades of Georgian society depicting, amongst others, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and their wives, and military or naval personnel. Many of the miniatures and drawings are of subjects connected to the East India Company and were executed during Smart’s ten years in India from 1785. Also included in this collection are some very rare and desirable drawings of Indian subjects sketched while Smart was in Madras, most notably Indian Boy (Cat 30) which at £35,000 is the most expensive drawing in the sale. This delightful sketch depicts a turbaned Indian boy complete with earring and bindi staring out at the viewer; his gentle, rounded features are most engaging and one could happily stare back at him for hours.
Smart’s ability to make his subjects alluring is a feature that runs throughout his work, perhaps this is in part because of his use of realism: the crow’s feet, sunburn and receding hairlines that he paints with painstaking detail add a certain humanity to his subject. Some wonderful blown-up prints of the portrait miniatures have been placed on the walls around the gallery highlighting Smart’s technique in detail.A Gentleman, 1799 (Cat 31) and A Gentleman, 1778 (Cat 19) are two such examples of how the artist captures a likeness with all its perceived defects and still manages to make the subject handsome or beautiful. This skill is no doubt why Smart achieved success early in his career and maintained his popularity throughout.
One patron who admired the artist’s ability was Sir Robert Wigram. Wigram, who started his career as a surgeon in the East India Company, turned to trading when he developed a problem with his eyes. He went on to make his fortune as an investor in shipyards and a merchant in drugs, and became a regular source of income for Smart who painted Wigram (Cat.33), his wife and a number of their 23 children.
Another of Smart’s patrons was Richard Twining, the head of Twining’s Tea and a director of the East India Company. Twining commissioned Smart to paint one of his daughters and although that miniature is not present in this collection (having been sold at Christie’s in 2003) there is one of Richard Twining available for sale within the exhibition. Painted in 1771, Twining’s miniature (Cat. 8) is delightful and depicts him in an exquisitely embroidered waistcoat with his powdered hair worn en queue. Like many of the portrait miniatures in this collection the watercolour is presented in a frame as delicate as the painting: in this case a silver-gilt, bracelet-clasp frame with diamond border. Many of the frames are inscribed on the reverse with the name of the sitter, some contain locks of hair, and all are dated and initialled by the artist.
This is a truly exquisite collection of miniatures many of which have already sold and I urge the reader to visit the Philip Mould gallery before the exhibition ends on 9 December. If you are not in the market for a portrait miniature right now you should still take the opportunity to view this rare collection of John Smart’s work before it is undoubtedly sold to individual buyers. A wonderful online catalogue is available via a link on Philip Mould’s website and the very knowledgeable and experienced staff at the gallery would be happy to answer any enquiries.
‘John Smart (1741 – 1811), A Genius Magnified’ is on at Philip Mould and Company, 29 Dover Street, London W1S 4NA until 9 December 2014 www.philipmould.com
Freelance art historian and writer, London
This review appears in the December issue with more images.
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