Researching Colonial Portraiture in England

This summer, I was awarded a Reves Center International Travel Grant to conduct research in England for my dissertation. My research trip is one month long and will take me to London and Oxford and then around the countryside to several houses. My dissertation, “The Art of Plantation Authority: Domestic Portraiture in Colonial Virginia,” looks at the social function of portraiture in Virginia until about 1776. So, why does a doctoral student researching colonial portraits need to spend so much time in England?

This dissertation, while it focuses on Virginians and portraits that hung in Virginia, really is a transatlantic project. Many colonists had their portraits painted in England, and until later in the eighteenth century, most painters working in the colonies were from England. In particular, there are a number of pre-1726 portraits of Virginians painted in England that lack firm dates and attributions of sitters and/or artists. One of my many research goals during this trip is to date and identify some of these early portraits. Lacking archival evidence, the best way to do that, is to look at as many contemporary images as possible.

A view of Somerset House, where the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Witt Library are located.

Over the last two and half weeks in London, I have spent most weekdays at either the Courtauld Institute’s Witt Library or the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Library and Archive. Both institutions have incredible reference collections and have collected images from private and public collections, auction records, and surveys. The Heinz Library also has extensive files on British sitters. At the Heinz Library, the artists are organized alphabetically in 25-year periods. I looked through every box they have from the 1675-1750 periods and a few from 1750-1775. I came across many artists I had never heard of before. The Witt library organizes their boxes alphabetically within “schools” (British, French, etc.) rather than chronologically. This made it harder to find artists I was unfamiliar with, but thanks to my work at the Heinz, I could cross-reference artists. If I found an artist at the Heinz whose work looked interesting, I could then pull the artist’s file at the Witt. The libraries have some overlapping photographic records, but usually they also had different works on file as well.

The sitter boxes at the Heinz Library also proved useful. They have images of important British sitters, including several colonial officials and prominent colonists, such as Daniel Parke and William Byrd II.

The stacks at the Witt Library.

Really, the experience was a sort of crash course in eighteenth-century British portraiture. My academic background is in American art and history. While I have read quite a bit about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British art in preparation for this trip and for my dissertation, nothing beats studying the images themselves. Looking through so many eighteenth-century portraits helped me understand what was typical for British portraiture and what may be unique to individual artists or sitters. Many poses, gestures, and costumes appear over and over again. Artists copied each other’s successful compositions and styles to appeal to potential patrons, which resulted in many portraits by different artists looking very similar. However, occasionally, portraits truly stand out for including an object or gesture not seen elsewhere.

Of course, looking through mostly black and white photographs of oil portraits to identify potential artists of colonial subjects was just the first step. Attribution can only be made by closely comparing technical details, ideally in person. That is something I hope to spend more time on in the future.