DescriptionStudio of SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE (British, 1769-1830)
Portrait of Richard Hart Davis, M.P. (1769-1842), after 1815 - circa 1830
Oil on canvas
31-1/2 x 25 inches (80.0 x 63.5 cm)
Ehrich-Newhouse Galleries, New York, New York (by 1935);
Private collection, Kansas (purchased from the above on November 16, 1935, extant bill of sale);
Alan Barnes Fine Art, Dallas, Texas (purchased from the above in 2006).
There are two labels on the reverse of the frame: a hand-lettered number "16" which appears to be an exhibition or collection label, and a small paste-down with red border with the handwritten numbers in ballpoint pen "4987." The latter resembles a museum transit label.
This dashing portrait is one of four or possibly five versions produced after a much-admired likeness of Bristol merchant Richard Hart Davis, M.P. painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1815.
The specific half-length presentation Lawrence chose to portray Richard Hart Davis was one he used to great effect during the 1810s for men who were political celebrities and public figures. The painter placed his subject against a dark background, highlighting the face and showing only a mysterious flash of brilliance somewhere in the darkness behind him. Usually the sitter wore, at Lawrence's request, a costume featuring a passage of searing red so that the portrait would contain an accent of irresistible visual richness. Lawrence's sharp illumination of the face accentuated clearcut lines, giving the impression, as it does here, of intellectual strength and physical vigor. Lawrence's remarkable portraits of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London) and the great Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (Pinacoteca di Casa Canova, Museo Gipsoteca Canoviana di Possagno, Italy) possess the same painterly conventions characterizing this portrait of Richard Hart Davis.
Lawrence and Davis were both born in Bristol within three years of each other-the painter in 1766 and Davis in 1769. Over the years the two men became friends when their lives intersected through a mutual love of art. Both were avid and discerning collectors, Davis of outstanding Old Master paintings which became available as a result of the Napoleonic invasions and for which he was willing to pay a king's ransom to acquire, and Lawrence of Old Master drawings. Diarist Joseph Farington reported that by 1813 (two years before Lawrence painted his portrait) Davis has already spent £100,000 on his art collection. Following financial reversals of 1818, Richard Hart Davis sold his collection en bloc to Sir Philip Miles of Leigh Court just outside Bristol, which became the nucleus of the celebrated Leigh Court Collection, dispersed in 1899.
Richard Hart Davis was a self-made man, the third son of Henry Davis of Bristol and his second wife, Marianna, only daughter and heiress of Major Hart-Davis of Grantham, County Lincolnshire. He and his wife, Sarah Whittingham of Earlsmead, had four children who lived to adulthood (two daughters, Clementina and Louisa; two sons, Hart and Richard Vaughan). A Member of Parliament for the notoriously corrupt borough of Colchester in 1807-12 and for Bristol in 1812-31 (six consecutive parliaments), Richard Hart Davis was a political associate of Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister who was instrumental in the foundation of the National Gallery, London. By age 28 he had become a partner in Harford's Bank in Bristol, and in 1803 joined the Society of Merchant Venturers. In 1810, according to Lord Dunstanville, Davis was known to have become a fabulously successful commercial speculator who had managed to gain possession of all the Spanish wool in the Kingdom, reportedly making £200,000. His coup in cornering the wool market doubtless helped his ability to buy pictures, to commission the 1815 portrait of himself and at least four other family members from Thomas Lawrence (and quite probably studio versions of these as well), and to purchase real estate. Farington remarked quite pointedly that unlike most Bristol merchants, Richard Hart Davis lived at large expense and had four residences: one in Bristol, one near Bristol (Mortimer House in Clifton), and two in London (one in Grosvenor Square). Certainly four children and four homes could easily account for the multiple versions of this commanding portrait by Lawrence which have appeared on the market during the 1920s and 30s, and again during the past two decades.
The painting which is currently held to be the primary version of the Richard Hart Davis portrait by Lawrence was sold through Sotheby's, London, The British Sale, 22 March 2000, lot 85. The last owner of that painting was the distinguished publisher, author, and descendant of the sitter, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, who died in 1999 (he hyphenated his name). According to Kenneth Garlick's 1989 catalogue raisonné of Lawrence (cat. no. 391), the portrait measured 30 x 25 inches and descended uninterrupted in the Hart-Davis family to then-owner Sir Rupert. When the work was sold at Sotheby's in 2000, however, the cataloguing deviated in places from Garlick's documentation of it. The dimensions were given instead as 29 ½ x 24 ½ in. and the provenance states that the work descended in the family to the Rev. R. H. Hart Davis, until it was sold at Christie's, 14th July 1922, lot 24 to Partridge for £787.10. These discrepancies raise the question of whether versions of this portrait, and/or their histories were conflated. (The 1922 sale also included portraits of Richard Hart Davis's son Hart Hart Davis and his wife Charlotte. The Hart Hart Davis portrait in the 1922 sale is certainly a replica of the primary version which was made for Eton College, where it has remained ever since. It was commissioned by Richard Hart Davis in 1809 from Thomas Lawrence as his son's Eton "Leaving Portrait.")
According to Garlick's 1989 catalogue (see mention in note to cat. no. 391), there is a copy of Lawrence's Portrait of Richard Hart Davis in the Mansion House, Bristol (now residence of Bristol's Lord Mayor). A third version of the Portrait of Richard Hart Davis is reproduced in the Witt photographic archive of The Courtauld Institute of Art, London (fiche 2124, box 1418) as having been in the collection of a Reverend W. H. Powell of Bristol in 1937. Powell loaned it to an exhibition of Lawrence's paintings in Bristol in 1937. This portrait, measuring a slightly narrower 30 x 23 ½ inches, appears from photographs to be quite similar to the present work. Whether the Powell version and the Mansion House version could be one and the same painting is unknown at this writing. A fourth version of the portrait measuring 30 x 25 inches is reproduced in the Witt photo archives (fiche 2124, box 1418) as having been on the art market with G. Arnot, London in 1929. The sharpness of the photo makes a clear reading of the handling difficult, though it seems somewhat softer and closer perhaps to the version which sold at Sotheby's in 2000. A possible fifth version measuring 30.1 x 25.2 inches-and the only one to date which was sold as "Attributed to Thomas Lawrence" rather than with a full attribution-fetched $8,087 at Neumeister on September 19, 1990, lot 578. The work was not illustrated. Additionally, an oil study for the Portrait of Richard Hart Davis was part of lot 13 in the Thomas Lawrence studio sale, 18th June 1831 (possibly sold at Tajan, Paris, 18 December 1995, lot 43).
During the same year he painted Richard Hart Davis, Thomas Lawrence embarked upon a royal commission from the Prince Regent that not only made his career, but reaped for him tremendous and unprecedented financial rewards: a series of portraits of the allied leaders following their triumph over Napoleon for the so-called Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. To accomplish this remarkable body of work, Lawrence was required to travel abroad extensively--to Aachen, Vienna, and Rome. When he returned to England in 1820, he was knighted and elected president of the Royal Academy. The confidence with which he painted the Portrait of Richard Hart Davis characterizes his achievements going forward. Moreover, it contains that idiosyncratic blend of sensuous design and romantic longing with the requisite formality of an official image that was to become Lawrence's most personal contribution to the history of portraiture.
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