Andrew Robertson (1777-1845)
Stonestreet was a remarkable man and served as Chaplain of the Guards at Napoleon’s last stand, the Battle of Waterloo. Following the battle, he was among the victorious troops who marched into Paris...
This portrait of the Reverend George Griffin Stonestreet represents one of the pivotal moments in the history of English miniature painting. The artist, Andrew Robertson, was one of the true nineteenth-century visionaries in the genre. One of the eight children of architect William Robertson, Andrew initially trained in Aberdeen to become a medic. However, although he completed his studies to the point of being awarded an MA, Robertson’s father could not afford to continue his son’s education and so he left instead to go to Edinburgh, where he became a painter of theatre scenery and a miniaturist.
Thanks to the benefaction of a friend, Robertson receive one of the most superlative artistic educations that it was possible to receive in contemporary Edinburgh. Whilst he was being tutored as a draughtsman by Alexander Nasmyth, Robertson met Henry Raeburn – the leading portrait painter of the Scottish Enlightenment – who, by allowing him to copy his paintings, provided encouragement to the young artist. Raeburn’s painterly skill and his use of chiaroscuro was to be one of Robertson’s most important formative influences. Yet none had greater interest in the success of the young Robertson’s career than his brother, the miniaturist Archibald, who, despite having emigrated to New York, provided assistance from afar via his 1800 Treatise on the Art of Miniature Painting, which he sent to his brother from across the Atlantic. However, despite the excellence of this tutelage, Robertson’s questing and inquisitive mind refused to take anything as read. Perhaps bearing his medical background in mind, he complained of the lack of influence in Scotland on the drawing of human anatomy and the body and, thus, when he enlisted in the Royal Academy Schools in 1801, he paid particular attention to this aspect of his education.
When he launched his career, Robertson made clear his intention to transform the precepts of his profession. Declaring that ‘oval miniatures [are] at best but toys’, Robertson sought to become a painter of serious pictures. Dissatisfied but what he saw as the flimsy and China-like style of artists who then held the field – such as Richard Cosway – Robertson added unusual ingredients to his paints, such as gum arabic and watercolours varnishes, and worked on bigger, rectangular supports to mimic the appearance of oils on canvas. So successful was Robertson in his endeavour that – much to his delight – Richard Cosway mistook one of his works in watercolour for miniature in oils. However, Robertson was as canny as he was visionary and, aware of the expense and, indeed, time that his more radical miniatures took to create – he estimated that thirty-five hours’ worth of sittings were required per miniature – he continued simultaneously to work in a more conservative vein – using, for instance, oval supports – to attract patrons with less ambitious tastes. This strategy was highly successful, as can be seen both in the royal patronage that was awarded to Robertson and in his frequent exhibitions at major institutions such as the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in Watercolour over a forty year period (1802-1842). Robertson’s ambitions for the transformation of miniature painting were to be furthered through his pedagogy, with miniaturists such as his son by his first marriage, Edward.
George Griffin Stonestreet was himself a remarkable man. Born in 1782 to a prosperous family – his father’s background was in insurance – he went up to Cambridge in 1799 from where he graduated in 1807. When he left, he went into the clergy and soon became the chaplain to the Duke of York (famous through a popular children’s nursery rhyme). Following service as Chaplain to the Armed Forces under Sir Thomas Graham, Stonestreet was again called upon to serve as the Chaplain of the Guards at Napoleon’s last stand, the Battle of Waterloo. Here, Stonestreet fulfilled a vital task, ministering to the troops, allaying their fears as the hour of battle approached. Following the battle, he was among the victorious troops who marched into Paris, Napoleon’s former capital. Shown two years later by Robertson, he seems to be still possessed of the confidence and pride of one of the victors. Clearly a man of some means, Stonestreet was also depicted – seemingly an older man – by Sir Thomas Lawrence.