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Lively faces capture the past

Review by Corinna Lotz

You only have until this Sunday to enjoy a delightful selection of largely unseen treasures. The modest scale and off the beaten track space (Room 90 at the British Museum) makes looking at these 180 faces from the past a fascinating and at times haunting experience.

Self-Portrait, 1790. Archibald Skirving.
Pastels on paper
© Scottish National Portrait Gallery

They are a cross-section of Georgian and Regency worthies and members of the cultural élite often drawn swiftly and caught in candid pose. Most revealing, perhaps, are the many self-portraits by leading artists, including Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and David Wilkie.

Take for example Francis Cotes’ astonishingly fresh pastel portrait of Catherine Gunning, sloping shoulders fringed by lace – her just slightly tilted head adorned by a pearl. Delicate silvers, whites and soft blues enhance this appealing image of a society beauty whose mother had brought her to London in search of a wealthy husband. Cotes, and other English and Scots artists of the day, took the pastel portrait, pioneered by the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, to a greater sophistication. But it is not only pastels which stand out here. Chalk drawings such as Allan Ramsay’s image of himself at the age of 42 can trump even pastel for psychological intensity. Ramsay swings his head around to look at himself – and us – quizzically and a bit sadly. The light falls on the right side of his face, with the left eye almost lost in the shadows. The rough paper texture beneath the chalk, dark red marks and touches of white make his face spring alive.

Lavinia Banks by John Hoppner
© the Trustees of the British Museum

John Hoppner’s black and red chalk sketch of Lavinia Banks has a lightness of touch as the young woman’s face emerges out of a welter of curls. Hoppner’s portrait of his wife Phoebe, a renowned beauty, wearing yet another fancy feathered hat and with a bow around her waist, is equally attractive. The flowers on her big hat are only just outlined. The focus is on her wistful gaze. The direct observation from life in so many of these portraits gives them an intimacy far greater than any formal oil painting could achieve.

The acquisition of child prodigy Thomas Lawrence’s beautiful drawing of Mary Hamilton provided the original impulse for this exhibition. Lawrence also turned his hand to making images of political writers and thinkers, including the revolutionary philosophical writer, William Godwin. The Mary Hamilton portrait was saved from export and acquired for the British Museum thanks to funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund.

25 May 2009

The Intimate Portrait, Drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence, is in Room 90 at the British Museum until 31 May. Admission is free. Open Daily. Late openings until 20.30 on Thursdays and Fridays

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