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Discovery: Four Lost Gentlemen, Printmaking and the Plumbago

Thu Aug 11, 2016

By Lydia Miller

England in the mid-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was illuminated by brightly coloured and carefully bejewelled palm-sized portraits, painted by leading miniaturists of the period. However, as the seventeenth century drew to a close, the practice of traditional limning began to decline and by 1705 Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) had introduced ivory to Europe as the new medium for portrait miniatures.

From the late 1650s English patrons looked for innovative reinterpretations of traditional portraiture in a society saturated with small painted likenesses. Oil on copper portraits, by Dutch artists working in England at the time, satisfied patrons to an extent but it was David Loggan (1634-1692) who introduced the highly-finished, monochrome portrait drawings, known as plumbagos. The plumbago, a term used to describe any small portrait drawing of the period, was established as part of the Netherlandish print trade in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Initially produced as preliminary sketches for engravings, these portrait drawings became highly sought-after, as they not only demonstrated the printer’s skill as an artist, but were cheaper than painted portraits. These drawings also introduced, for the first time, the possibility of exact reproductions through an engraved version and provided patrons with the means to disseminate their image to friends and family on an extensive scale.

Robert White, plumbago portrait of Samuel Haworth, c.1683

Plumbagos were an immediate predecessor of the mezzotint, which arrived in Britain as a tour de force in the mid-seventeenth century; the first dated mezzotint portrait can be attributed to William Sherwin in 1669 of King Charles II. However, it was not until the arrival of a number of Dutch printmakers including Blooteling in the 1670s, that the mezzotint became better established and English patrons began to collect prints of influential and popular figures of the period. Leading portrait painters, including Sir Peter Lely, nourished the print trade by allowing Blooteling, among others, to make prints of their work, which in effect advertised their skill. By the following decade English printmakers such as John Smith began to establish themselves in the trade.

David Loggan, who brought the plumbago to England, had initially trained in Gdansk (Danzig) before completing his training in Amsterdam with Crispijn de Passe II (ca. 1594-1670) a prolific engraver and draughtsman of the period.[1] Having established his success in England in the 1660s, Loggan began training Robert White (1645-1703) as a studio assistant and by 1666 White was producing his own portrait engravings in London. Although Loggan was highly skilled as both a draughtsman and an engraver, it has been argued that White demonstrated a greater insight into the characters of his sitters; this can certainly be seen in the four plumbago portraits illustrated below.[2]

Portraits of John Harris (c.1666-1719), Samuel Haworth (b. 1659/60), William Salmon (1644-1713) and Elias Keach (c.1665-1701) by Robert White

Unlike Loggan and, slightly later, John Faber (c.1660-1721) (below), whose plumbagos were created with the same level of meticulous detail as their engravings, White treated the two mediums very differently. He concentrates on the faces of William Salmon and Elias Keach in the plumbagos, capturing them almost mid-expression. This allows the portraits to appear more honest in likeness and less formal. The length of William Salmon’s wig and his clothes are less detailed and are worked down to simple graphite lines; it is likely that the engraving of Salmon’s clothes would have been completed by a studio assistant rather than by White himself, so detail was not necessary at this initial stage.

John Faber, Plumbago portrait of Queen Anne, 1704, previously with Philip Mould & Co.

John Faber, plumbago portrait of Queen Anne, 1704, previously with Philip Mould & Co.

Considering the four portraits recently acquired by Philip Mould & Co., each likeness is unique, in contrast to later plumbagos by artists such as Thomas Forster (ca.1677-after 1712), who often relied on formulaic compositions and whose sitters are sometimes hard to differentiate. Curiously, the identities of two of White’s four sitters, John Harris and Samuel Haworth, had been lost as they re-entered the art market in the 1990s, and no reference was made to the engravings taken from these ad vivum sketches - copies of which are in the National Portrait Gallery collection. In decorative design, White’s engravings closely resemble his master’s work, David Loggan, through the extension of the ornamented feigned oval and the inclusion of a classical plinth, an inscription and sometimes a coat of arms.[3] The plumbago portraits of John Harris a writer and lecturer on science, Samuel Haworth an empirical physician, Elias Keach a Baptist pastor and William Salmon a medical empiric were all taken with the intention of being engraved; Elias Keach’s portrait was later engraved as a private commission for John Marshall, a bookseller on Gracechurch Street. The engravings of Harris, Haworth and Salmon were later used as frontispieces for their scientific works published between 1683 and 1714.

Four plumbago portraits recently acquired by Philip Mould & Co. next to their later engravings

After Robert White’s death in 1703 it is presumed that his son inherited the majority of his possessions including his studio, as he continued to live in his father’s print shop in Bloomsbury Market until his own death.[4] Robert White did not leave a will and it is possible that these four portraits (initially part of a collection of nine plumbagos) remained in a descendant’s collection until their re-emergence on the art market in the last thirty years. This unfortunately cannot be proved conclusively.

[1] M.E. Wiseman, ‘Between Paint and Print: Plumbago Portraits in Britain and the Netherlands’ in Perfect Likeness (New Haven and London, 2006), pp. 37 & 42.

[2] The Fourteenth Volume of the Walpole Society, 1925-1926 (Oxford, 1926), p.64.

[3] Robert White’s engraving of William Salmon can be compared to David Loggan’s engraving of John Pearson dating to 1682 [NPG 635], produced five years before White completed Salmon’s engraving.

[4] M.E. Wiseman, ‘Between Paint and Print: Plumbago Portraits in Britain and the Netherlands’ in Perfect Likeness (New Haven and London, 2006), p.43.