Regency Portraiture:   Iconography

Last week, I wrote about the typical process for painting most Regency portraits, part by part. This week, another dimension to portraiture, that the choice of those parts was anything but random. In particular, the items placed in the portrait or the setting in which the sitter was placed were specifically chosen to send a carefully crafted message about the sitter. Iconography is not the study of the little click-able images on your computer desktop, it is the study and interpretation of the meaning of all those special "furnishings" within a portrait.

The iconography of Regency portraiture …

The use of images within a portrait to send a message goes back at least into the Middle Ages. At that time, most portraits were of people who held a great deal of power and wealth. Many had the symbols of that power and wealth included in their portraits, which was necessary in an age when few people could read. Thus, a king would typically be painted with crown and scepter, often having his coat of arms painted on the portrait by way of a label, to specify exactly which king was portrayed. By the Renaissance, more and more people were having their portraits painted. And they took that opportunity to tell the viewer something about themselves and their position, not only by the clothing they wore, but by the objects which were painted in to the portrait along with them. This became so common that the iconography was eventually codified, and various books were published in which the most commonly used images were identified and their meaning explained. One of the first of these "iconologies" was Iconologia, or Moral Emblems, published in Italy in the early seventeenth century by Cesare Ripa.

The tradition of including meaningful objects in portraits continued on through the centuries, right into the Regency. However, by that time, the types of objects which might be included tended to be more personal to the individual sitter. And, ironically, though more people were literate, fewer were actually able to interpret the meaning of the objects which were included in Regency portraits. Only those with a broad and sophisticated education would be able to comprehend the significance of many of the specialized items which might be included in a Regency portrait. Nearly anyone, regardless of their level of education, could figure out whether a portrait was that of a soldier, or a bishop, if the subject had been painted in their uniform or robes of office. But how many would perceive that the bishop was also a classical scholar because a copy Homer, in Greek, was lying open upon a nearby table. Or identify the battle in which the solider distinguished himself, even though the landmarks of that particular battlefield had been painted into the background of his portrait.

Not all Regency portraits included objects of import to the sitter. As I explained last week, cost was a factor in determining the composition of the completed portrait. As was ego. The more complex the portrait, the higher the cost. Thus, someone who simply wanted a good likeness might forego adding in objects which related to their interests or their accomplishments. However, someone with the kind of ego which drove them to make a statement about themselves might be willing to pay the artist much more, in order to have a portrait which they believed did them justice. An interesting comparison can be made between the portraits, both by Lawrence, of the half-brothers, Lord Castlereagh and his younger sibling, Sir Charles Stewart, which were painted only a couple of years apart. The portrait of Castlereagh was commissioned by a friend of the viscount. He wanted a likeness of his friend to hang in his home. But he did not have a lot of money to spend on a portrait, and he knew Castlereagh well, so he had no need of icons scattered about the background of the portrait to tell him about his friend. Thus, this portrait is a simple half-length, with Castlereagh facing the viewer. The most important part of the painting is the viscount’s face. He is wearing a velvet greatcoat with a fur collar, but it is very likely this was Lawrence’s idea. He enjoyed painting rich textures, and he may have chosen the lavish greatcoat to add elegance to what was meant to be an unpretentious private portrait. On the other hand, "Fighting Charlie" commissioned his portrait himself, from his good friend Lawrence. Almost three-quarter length, in it he is shown in his full-dress Hussar uniform, with his Peninsular Medal, won at the Battle of Talavera, displayed prominently on his chest. His sabre is set at a jaunty angle on one shoulder, his fur-collared, gold-braided pelisse slung over the other. He is the picture of a vital, swaggering, victorious Hussar officer. Two brothers, painted by the same artist, within two years of one another, and yet their portraits are so very different.

There was a broad range of Regency portraits which included objects of meaning to the sitter. Some contained only a few objects, others many. The portrait by Thomas Phillips of William Blake is revealing, as he was both an artist and a poet. He is painted against an uncluttered background, holding a pencil, rather than a brush, indicating he felt his poetry was his more significant art. Two examples of portraits which contained only a few significant items are the portraits of Caroline of Brunswick and her daughter, Princess Charlotte, again, both by Lawrence. The portrait of Caroline depicts her holding a modelling tool in her right hand, with a nearly finished clay bust of her father, the Duke of Brunswick, on a table just behind her. Caroline had taken up sculpting, in fact, she had studied with an Italian sculptor in London, and was known to be a talented sculptor herself. The portrait of Princess Charlotte portrays her seated on a sofa, with her left arm resting on a large leather-bound portfolio of what appear to be etchings. Charlotte had taken up the study of etching and had become a skillful practitioner of the art. Both the young princess and her mother were shown in elegant gowns, seated in lavish surroundings, but the items which were included to represent their personal interests were minimal, focusing on an artistic ability of which each was quite deservedly proud.

Both Princess Charlotte and her mother were painted in their own clothes. But there were some people who actually rented clothing specifically for their portrait. This was most likely to happen when someone from the lesser gentry or the merchant class wished to have a portrait in which they appeared to be more fashionable, wearing clothes they were unlikely to be able to afford for daily wear. Some portrait artists actually maintained a selection of garments at their studio in which their sitters could choose to be painted. There was also a unique class of portrait in which the costume was of crucial importance. Many prominent actors and actresses of the time had themselves painted as one of their signature characters. There were also occassions when these portraits were commissioned by wealthy patrons. This was more common in the case of actresses, when their protector might commission a portrait of them in character, particularly if that costume was in some way revealing or risqué. And there were notable society personalities who chose to be painted in exotic costume, including Lord Byron, in his Albanian costume and Thomas Hope, the author and collector, in his Turkish costume. The entertainer and Egyptologist, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, had himself painted in full beard, wearing a turban and eastern costume, with a pyramid in the background. The second Duchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth, became absorbed in classical studies after the death of the Duke, and had herself painted by Lawrence, in what, for the time, passed as classical costume. Whether a sitter chose to be painted in their own clothing, rented a set for their portrait, or were painted wearing a theatrical costume, they would have to send the garments to the artist’s studio. There, they would be put on a mannequin or model which would be placed in the pose which the sitter had chosen. The artist, or one of his assistants or students, would then paint the clothing portion of the portrait, usually after the artist had finished the face and head of the sitter and sketched in the basic pose.

The Prince Regent himself happened upon one of these models one day when he made a surprise visit to Lawrence’s studio in Russell Square. He walked into the room where Lawrence was painting, unannounced, to be confronted by a nearly bald elderly woman dressed in an exquisite gown of white satin. Lawrence had some difficulty in persuading the Regent that the woman was quite indifferent to being discovered in such a state. He was eventually able to make the Prince understand she had been hired as a model for the Duchess of Gloucester‘s clothes while Lawrence painted them into her portrait. Perhaps out of consideration for his much younger sister, whose portrait this was, the Regent enlisted Lawrence’s aid to put a wig on the woman, but in vain. There was no wig in the studio collection which would fit her, and eventually they had to leave her bald as Lawrence continued to paint.

Any personally meaningful objects which a sitter wished to have included in their portrait would have to be sent to the artist’s studio along with their chosen clothing. When the noted Plato scholar, Thomas Taylor, had his portrait painted by Lawrence, he sent the volume of Plato, which can be seen in the lower right foreground, as well as the books and Plato translations which are seen under his left hand. He may also have had to provide a print of the Acropolis of Athens, which can be seen in the background over his shoulder. However, it is possible that Lawrence owned such a print and could have used that as a model from which to paint the background. When Henry Rowley Bishop, the noted composer and musical Director of the Covent Garden Opera House, had his portrait painted by Thomas Foster, the artist was sent not only his cloak with the deep velvet collar but a sheaf of music which is depicted rolled in his hand, a script with the royal stamp and the large, richly bound books which are seen over his shoulder. For his portrait, the anatomist Joshua Brooks, sent the artist, Thomas Phillips, a large anatomy book, which is seen open on the baize-covered slant-top desk, the corpse of what appears to be a pig, just behind it, in addition to the reptilian embryo in a large specimen jar which is placed in the niche behind him, along with the books in the niche and on the desk. It is possible he also had to supply the desk, the quill and the paper, if Phillips did not have the necessary props in his studio. The engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel, had his portrait painted in 1813. He sent the artist, James Northcote, drawings of the circular veneer saws he had invented, as well as his proportional compass which lies atop them, two of his engineering books, and a model of the machine he had invented for making pulley blocks for the Royal Navy.

One of the most deeply personal, and perhaps overtly celebratory, portraits of a Regency gentleman of which I am aware is that of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, painted in 1817, by George Francis Joseph. Raffles had returned to England in 1817, to see his book, The History of Java, through to publication. While he was in England, he was invited to Carlton House, where, on 29 May 1817, he was feted and praised in a lengthy speech by the Prince Regent, before being knighted. In this portrait, which was painted soon thereafter, he is shown at almost full-length, though seated, probably wearing the black court suit with knee breeches and silk stockings which he wore at the levée at Carlton House. In his hand he holds his certificate of knighthood, behind him, over a stone balustrade, is what was intended to be a Javanese landscape, revealed by a sweeping red drapery. To his right is a table upon which are placed a stack of books and a pair of quills in an inkstand, there are a sheaf of papers held in a scarlet folder with more papers lying atop that, one of which is addressed to him, all alluding to his status as an author and scholar. Just behind this cluster of papers and books can be seen a stone bas-relief of an ancient Javanese god holding a poppy-head and a small gold statuette of a seated Javanese Buddha, both of which attest to the fact that he was a recognized authority on Java. Though it is difficult to see, the artist has signed and dated the portrait on one of the papers at Raffles’ elbow:   "Geo. Fra. Joseph | ARA, 1817."

In addition to a collection of garments of various styles, most portrait artists would have had some basic props in their studios, including various tables, chairs and perhaps even a sofa or two. Most also had a selection of draperies in different colors, which could serve as basic backdrops. Plaster busts of various Greeks and Romans might also be available in a more upscale artist’s studio, to be included in a gentleman’s portrait as an allusion to his classical education and sophisticated taste. A number of artists collected prints, especially of landscapes and townscapes, which they could use as sources to paint in a background, based on the sitter’s interests. Again, scenes of Greek and Roman ruins were very popular. Some artists even had a unique prop or two, which they would often include in their work. For example, Sir Joshua Reynolds is known to have kept a pet macaw, which he frequently painted into the background of his portraits, with his sitter’s permission. For some reason, the macaw hated Reynold’s housemaid and would frequently attack her. One of Reynold’s pupils, James Northcote, painted a portrait of the maid, and the macaw attacked the picture. Animals were considered very difficult to fool, so this was a great compliment to the painter’s skill. Northcote made sure this story got around, as it spoke to his ability to depict a true and faithful likeness of his subjects, a skill which was highly valued in an age before photography.

Other animals were occasionally depicted in portraits of both men and women, though few artists kept such props in their studios, quite likely to the relief of their servants. Usually, the animals to be included in a portrait would have to be supplied by the client. Dogs were very popular with many sitters, for they were symbols of fidelity and loyalty. The name "Fido," commonly given to dogs for centuries, is Latin for "I trust." Cats are less commonly included in portraits, and most often are seen in the portraits of women, curled up, fast asleep, with the intent of indicating domestic contentment. But there are a few portraits in which a cat is to be seen in the background, in pursuit of a fleeing mouse. These vignettes are most often added for a bit of comic relief. The inclusion of dogs or horses in a portrait might very well be an indication that the gentleman, or occassionally, lady, was of the sporting persuasion. Small animals, such as dogs or cats, could be brought along to the studio for the sitting, if that specific creature was to be depicted in the portrait. If any dog or cat would do, the artist would probably use a print of the appropriate animal, selected by the sitter, as their model. The same would be the case if a horse was wanted in a portrait, unless the sitter want a specific horse. In such cases, the artist, or an assistant, usually with a special talent for painting horses, would go to the horse to do a life study, in its stable or paddock. If the sitter was to be depicted mounted on the horse, during their sitting, they would be seated on their chosen saddle, thrown over a sawhorse or other wooden framework, in the artist’s studio, so that the artist could capture the correct pose. The horse would be painted in later, usually by an assistant.

In most cases, the sitter decided what clothing they would wear, and what personal items would appear in their portraits. But there were a few artists who dictated, or tried to, what would be included in a portrait, particularly of a prominent sitter. One such sitter was the Duke of Wellington. In 1812, when Wellington briefly took Madrid, Francisco Goya painted his portrait. The fortunes of war forced the British to retreat from the city, and he did not return to the city again until 1814. In the first version of the portrait, he had been painted in a plain red coat, wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, on a red ribbon around his neck, which he had just been awarded by the Spanish government. But in the intervening two years, Wellington had acquired several other orders and awards, all of which Goya was determined to include before he considered the hero’s portrait complete, painting them in over the original work of 1812. Thomas Lawrence went the other way in his 1814 portrait of Wellington. Over his dress uniform, the Duke was wearing a sash with broad stripes. Lawrence peremptorily painted out the stripes, because he found them visually offensive. "Never mind," said the Duke, when he saw the portrait. "They merely constitute me Generalissimo of the Armies of Spain." On another occasion, however, Wellington did overrule Lawrence. He was sitting, or as he joked, standing, for a portrait which had been commissioned from Lawrence by Sir Robert Peel. In this three-quarter length portrait, he was shown standing against a subdued background, wearing the cloak he had worn at Waterloo. Lawrence had put a watch in his hand. Wellington inquired about the reason, and after the artist explained, he barked, "That will never do! I was not ‘waiting’ for the Prussians at Waterloo. Put a telescope in my hand, if you please, but no watch." Lawrence duly painted a telescope in over the watch. Wellington cared little for the various trappings of his numerous awards and honors, but he would not tolerate a slight on his ability as a commander.

There were any number of reasons why someone might wish to include items which were significant to them in their portrait. They might wish to record a notable event in their life, a major accomplishment or simply express what was important to them. However, if a sitter wished to have personally meaningful objects included in their portrait, they would be expected to supply them to the artist. These objects would have to be sent to the artist’s studio, where they would remain until the portrait was completed. As we saw last week, with the painting of Lord Mexborough’s wife and child, a portrait could take a very long time to complete. There were instances when an artist had their property impounded by their creditors, and very often that included anything in their studio, regardless of who actually owned it. Some artists, including Sir Thomas Lawrence, died unexpectedly, with their studio full of their client’s possessions. Some clients were able to prove ownership and retrieve their property, others had to watch their belongings go on the auction block to pay the artist’s debts. It was in a patron’s interests to get their portrait completed as quickly as possible, not only to enjoy the portrait, but also to regain their property.

The use of iconic objects in Regency portraits may be made to serve the plots of countless novels set in that era. Perhaps a group of highly-placed aristocrats all have their portraits painted, and in the background of each portrait is painted a unique item, perhaps the bust of an obscure classical scholar, a particular book, or, even, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, a special flower or plant, which serves as their secret badge of office, and which identifies them to the other members of the group. Perhaps an absent-minded classical scholar has sent one of his favorite antiquities to his portrait artist’s studio, to be painted into his portrait. Not long afterwards, his home is burglarized, and his daughter begins to suspect the thieves were after the antiquity, which is still safe at the artist’s studio. Mayhap the hero needs to gain access to the villain’s house, so commissions a portrait, thus ensuring the villain will be out of his house at specified times sitting for his portrait in the artist’s studio. Alternately, the hero may have made arrangements for a portrait to be painted in order to get the villain to send some of his possessions to the artist’s studio, where he can examine them. Or perhaps the heroine and her young siblings are about to loose their home, when several of their deceased father’s valuables are returned to them from the studio of the artist who painted his portrait some years before. Or, did the hero merely use that as a ruse to induce her to accept his assistance because she is so proud and stubborn? I am sure Regency authors can find even more imaginative ways to take advantage of this practice of painting significant objects into portraits in future novels.

Author’s Note:   An important exhibition of the works of Sir Thomas Lawrence opened yesterday at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. Thomas Lawrence:   Regency Power and Brilliance will run through 5 June 2011, and is not to be missed by any Anglophile or Regency devotee who will be in that area during the run of the exhibition. If you are able to visit, take the time to study the paintings and look for the various objects which Lawrence painted into them. See if you can figure out what they are intended to tell you about the subject of the portrait.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Regency Portraiture:   Iconography

  1. Pingback: Regency Portraiture:   Painting the Parts | The Regency Redingote

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  3. KWillow says:

    Perhaps a rich, social climbing female cousin of our poor-relation (but nearly identical) heroine makes her do the tedious posing for her full length portrait in a particularly beautiful gown. The hero comes in to commission a portrait …. and falls in love with the heroine. Problem? He thinks she is her wicked cousin, and becomes engaged to the cousin…

  4. Pingback: A Portrait by Lawrence | picturesinpowell

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