James Sharples’ profile portrait of George Washington is one of the most iconic within the sitter’s later iconography and was described by George Washington Parke Custis as ‘the finest and purest likeness of the Chief’ and ‘the best likeness of the man extant’.[1] Drawn in the same year that Washington issued his Farewell Address, the Sharples profile was one of the last portraits to which Washington gave sittings.

The sitting took place in 1796 when Sharples (or ‘Sharpless’ as he was known in America) was living and working in Philadelphia which was then the most important city in the United States. It was the seat of the Federal Government and the centre of monetary power and policy where the leading lights of government and fashionable society gathered. To have attained a sitting with such a prominent subject was no small task and Sharples would have been only too aware of the fame and celebrity it would bring. The likeness was...

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James Sharples’ profile portrait of George Washington is one of the most iconic within the sitter’s later iconography and was described by George Washington Parke Custis as ‘the finest and purest likeness of the Chief’ and ‘the best likeness of the man extant’.[1] Drawn in the same year that Washington issued his Farewell Address, the Sharples profile was one of the last portraits to which Washington gave sittings.

The sitting took place in 1796 when Sharples (or ‘Sharpless’ as he was known in America) was living and working in Philadelphia which was then the most important city in the United States. It was the seat of the Federal Government and the centre of monetary power and policy where the leading lights of government and fashionable society gathered. To have attained a sitting with such a prominent subject was no small task and Sharples would have been only too aware of the fame and celebrity it would bring. The likeness was very well received; Eliza Custis, Washington’s granddaughter, considered the Sharples profile ‘an admirable likeness, the profile taken by an instrument, and critically exact’. Such was its popularity that Sharples produced replicas for $15 which were acquired by collectors in America and England. The present work, which has survived in excellent condition, is one such example.

The earliest recorded owner of this work is Jeffrey Whitehead, a wealthy stockbroker and one of the most celebrated collectors of British portrait miniatures. His collection included important examples by English renaissance artists such as Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver and notable works by 18th century miniaturists including John Smart and Richard Cosway. He also collected portraits of historical figures from the mid-Georgian period as well as portraits of artists and literary figures. Whitehead regularly loaned to important exhibitions in London and was one of the main contributors to the seminal Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures staged at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1889, which is regarded as the most important exhibition of its type ever staged.

Although pastels were regularly exhibited alongside miniatures at this date, the present work was not included in the Burlington exhibition, as it was already on loan to another exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery. A Century of British Art from 1737 to 1837 was spread over five rooms in Grosvenor Gallery’s storied Bond Street premises, with the fourth room dedicated solely to portraits in pastel. The present portrait was erroneously described as being by John Russell in the catalogue, although judging by an inscription on the reverse of this work which is dated April 1889 and refers to Sharples’s portraits of Washington, this was probably a printing error. The portrait was exhibited again two years later in the important Exhibition of The Royal House of Guelph staged at The New Gallery.

Following Whitehead’s death in 1915, the portrait was sold at auction by Christie’s along with other important examples from his collection. It was acquired at the sale by a man named ‘Schroeder’ – presumably a picture dealer, and then entered the collection of the Birchall family of Bowden Hall, Upton St Leonards, in whose possession it remained until recently.

[1] Letters, George W.P. Custis to T.W.C. Moore, June 6 and July 21, 1857, transcribed in “George Washington Parke Custis’s Opinion of Portraits of Washington,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 18, no. 1 (1894), pp. 82-84).

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500 Years of British Art