Without the benefit of an artistic upbringing or background, the artist Gervase Spencer nevertheless attained a reputation as one of only two ‘Miniature Painters of Eminence in London’ in the mid-eighteenth century.

Dated 1749, this portrait of a young woman by Gervase Spencer has been proposed as a portrait of his wife. Other suggestions include one of the eldest daughters of Sir Wolstan Dixie, 4th Baronet (either Rebecca or Anna), as the miniature bears a close resemblance to the painting by Henry Pickering in the Nottingham City Art Gallery. Either way, the sitter wears fashionable country-style clothing, romanticised by impractical sleeves and collar. Her wealth is discreetly indicated by the large jewels she wears on her bodice and displayed on her hat.

Little is known of Gervase Spencer’s early life and it is believed that he began as a footman, amusing himself with drawing only as a hobby.[1] Clearly possessed of a natural gift, but without the benefit of an artistic upbringing or background, the artist Gervase Spencer nevertheless attained a reputation as one of only two ‘Miniature Painters of Eminence in London’ in the mid-eighteenth century.[2]

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Dated 1749, this portrait of a young woman by Gervase Spencer has been proposed as a portrait of his wife. Other suggestions include one of the eldest daughters of Sir Wolstan Dixie, 4th Baronet (either Rebecca or Anna), as the miniature bears a close resemblance to the painting by Henry Pickering in the Nottingham City Art Gallery. Either way, the sitter wears fashionable country-style clothing, romanticised by impractical sleeves and collar. Her wealth is discreetly indicated by the large jewels she wears on her bodice and displayed on her hat.

Little is known of Gervase Spencer’s early life and it is believed that he began as a footman, amusing himself with drawing only as a hobby.[1] Clearly possessed of a natural gift, but without the benefit of an artistic upbringing or background, the artist Gervase Spencer nevertheless attained a reputation as one of only two ‘Miniature Painters of Eminence in London’ in the mid-eighteenth century.[2]

It appears that Spencer was well acquainted with the young Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), later first President of the Royal Academy, who depicted Spencer painting a miniature, probably during the late 1740s. This oil portrait of the artist at work remained in Spencer’s collection until his death, and he etched the composition at least twice.[3] Spencer’s association with Reynolds perhaps demonstrates the level of support he received from those who were firmly part of the art establishment, and such relationships would have been essential in introducing him to patrons. The endorsement of Spencer as a professional artist by his contemporaries, such as fellow-miniaturist Samuel Finney (1719-98), is also perhaps testament to his tenacity in conquering the technical and artistic demands of enamelling, etching and painting on ivory.

[1] ‘Vertue Note Books’, The Walpole Society, vol. 22, 1933-34,(Oxford, 1936), p.151

[2] S. Finney, ‘Autobiographical Account’ in An historical survey of the parish of Wilmslow (London, 1785), p.267-287

[3] According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a painting of Spencer by Reynolds was in a sale of the miniaturist's effects in 1797, but its whereabouts is now unknown. There is a drawing in the British Museum [1881,0611.187] which is a copy of this portrait dating to c.1753-7.

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500 Years of British Art