Portrait of Robert Southey Poet Laureate 1774 - 1843
John James Masquerier 1778 - 1855
“This previously unrecorded portrait of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey can be attributed to John James Masquerier, the accomplished young portraitist…”
Oil on Canvas
36 x 28 inches; 91.4 x 71.1 cm
We are grateful to Professor Bill Speck, author of Southey's forthcoming biography, for dating this portrait to c.1800.
This previously unrecorded portrait of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey can be attributed to John James Masquerier, the accomplished young portraitist who enjoyed a wide practice among the intellectual and artistic communities at the turn of the nineteenth century. He has captured Southey with an expression of inspiration, the mouth slightly open as it to speak. The idiom of representation is subtly different to that of conventional society portraiture and even without the identification of the sitter we might suspect that the sitter is being granted a sense of perception and sensibility beyond the commonplace. In some ways the portrait recalls Masquerier’s seated self-portrait painted a decade earlier (private collection, formerly with Historical Portraits Ltd), in which the young painter glances up at the viewer, porte-crayon in hand, with a similar attitude of arrested inspiration.
In date this portrait most probably falls between the portrait by James Sharples c. 1795 (Bristol Museums & Art Gallerys) and the 1804 drawing by Henry Edridge in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery; the shorter hair – rather than the long locks in Robert Hancock’s profile portrait of the early 1790s (National Portrait Gallery) suggest this, and such a date would seem appropriate for an association between Masquerier and the poet, when Masquerier’s practice had begun to profit from his friendship with the Poet Laureate Henry James Pye (1745 – 1813). Pye not only provided the painter with numerous introductions to political circles, but must have harboured some sympathies for the young Southey, who succeeded him in the office of Poet Laureate at his death. Although in many ways antipathetical to the radicalism of the Romantic poets, Southey – the least extreme of the brotherhood – would have found common ground with the older man in their shared horror of Bonapartist aggression on the Continent.
Born in London to Huguenots who had originally fled to England at the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the young Masquerier returned to Paris in 1789 with his family. By virtue of his talents and his connections, the young artist was soon placed in the Academy of the Tuileries under the supervision of the then director François André Vincent (1746-1816) and teacher of painting Carle Vernet (1758-1836). Both exerted a considerable influence on Masquerier’s early style. During the three years that he was at the academy, he rose to head of the junior section of the school, despite being known as ‘the English Boy’.
Having witnessed the storming of the Tuileries on 10 August 1792 and many of the subsequent scenes of bloodletting that occurred in Paris at this time, Masquerier escaped back to London to the care of his maternal uncle, Mr Barbot.
With little difficulty he was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools, and excelled there as he had done in Paris. The artist’s friend, Dr. Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote how Masquerier ‘won the silver medal over and over again in the drawing of the academic drawing’ and how in specific reference to a self portrait (Historical Portraits, London) which was shown at the Royal Academy as his first exhibit in 1795 provoked ‘the president of the Royal Academy put him to an unusual test as to its authenticity!’