Since portrait miniatures were often commissioned as part of a romantic exchange, it is exceptional to find two still together. This pair, by the society artist John Downman, are also a relatively rare example of his work in miniature. Largely celebrated for his fast, bold drawings, Downman’s reputation as a recorder of his sitters in the latest fashions made him one of the most successful portraitists of the later eighteenth century. Interestingly, the couple in these portraits, Elizabeth and George Durrance, have chosen Downman for his skills as a miniaturist, thus securing their likenesses in a less ephemeral form. Housed in their original frames, they were likely exchanged at the point of their marriage – with Elizabeth possibly portrayed in her wedding attire. George’s pose, which shows him against a stormy sky, was one used by Downman in other male portraits and gives the sense of the sitter in movement, his gaze turned away from the viewer.[1]

John Downman was...

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Since portrait miniatures were often commissioned as part of a romantic exchange, it is exceptional to find two still together. This pair, by the society artist John Downman, are also a relatively rare example of his work in miniature. Largely celebrated for his fast, bold drawings, Downman’s reputation as a recorder of his sitters in the latest fashions made him one of the most successful portraitists of the later eighteenth century. Interestingly, the couple in these portraits, Elizabeth and George Durrance, have chosen Downman for his skills as a miniaturist, thus securing their likenesses in a less ephemeral form. Housed in their original frames, they were likely exchanged at the point of their marriage – with Elizabeth possibly portrayed in her wedding attire. George’s pose, which shows him against a stormy sky, was one used by Downman in other male portraits and gives the sense of the sitter in movement, his gaze turned away from the viewer.[1]

John Downman was the son of an attorney, Francis Downman, and his wife Charlotte (Goodsend), who was the daughter of George I’s private secretary. He briefly studied in Liverpool before training with Benjamin West, later president of the Royal Academy, at the Royal Academy Schools from 1769. Downman was extremely fond of his master, describing him as his ‘most beloved teacher’.[2] In 1768 he exhibited at the Free Society of Artists and in 1773 he spent two years in Italy, travelling with Joseph Wright of Derby. On his return to England, he established himself as a portrait painter in Cambridge in 1776 and by 1778 he was working in London and the West Country, which he visited frequently over the following thirty years.

Downman was never elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts but became an associate in 1795. After the turn of the century in 1800 he moved around, living in West Malling in Kent, Exeter, London and made several trips to York, Oxford and Northumberland. He retired to Chester in 1819 and relocated to Wrexham in North Wales where he died in 1824. Examples of his work are in the V&A, British Museum, Wallace Collection and the Royal Collection.

[1] See, for example, Downman’s portrait of John Prinsep, British Museum, registration number 1967,1014.205.

[2] Dr Williamson, John Downman, A.R.A. His Life and Works, (London, 1907), p. xii; D. Foskett, Miniatures Dictionary and Guide, (Woodbridge, 1987), p.530.

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500 Years of British Art