For much of recent history if a young gentleman liked to powder his hair pink and wear it en queue he would probably do it in private. Not so in the 18th century when such a style was so fashionable gents had themselves painted by society painter John Smart in just such a get-up. His portraits are exquisite, delicate images of the young, beautiful and well-connected. Presumably they were also a good likeness, as the commissions rolled in and he even travelled to India to ply his fancy-a-picture-of-your-sweetheart trade.
Why then is Mr John Smart not as well known as Reynolds and Gainsborough and all the rest of the famous portrait boys? Mainly because he worked in little. Smart was one of the finest miniaturists of the 18th century, a contemporary and rival of Richard Cosway. He worked predominantly in watercolour on ivory, displaying an anatomical understanding, a precise control of his (tiny) brush and a desire to set down an honest record of what he could see. This exactness was criticised by rival artists such as Ozias Humphry who preferred to win clients with a more flattering style.
If you’ve just said to yourself interesting, where can I see his work, you are in luck. Until 9th December Philip Mould is showing forty-five works by Smart from a single-owner collection. The smallest is little bigger than a thumbnail, the largest, created after he returned from India reaching the dimensions of a man’s palm. All demonstrate Smart’s mastery of his medium and refined palette. Not to mention his 20/20 vision.
These are the 18th century equivalent of saving a picture of your kids or partner on the home screen of your phone. It was all very well having a hulking great full length portrait of your wife hanging in the library, but Smart gave people the opportunity to take an image of their loved one on their travels.
As well as watercolour on ivory Mould is also showing several pencil and watercolour drawings on paper. Here the pale paper contrasts less with the portraits than the grey background he chooses for the ivories. Smart’s techniques continue to develop throughout his life. In his final years he is found experimenting with gouache, enjoying the finish it gives which is closer to that of oil paint.
Smart’s portraits give a glimpse of British society in one of its richest and most well-fed periods. Many of the miniatures are framed with jewels demonstrating the wealth of the patrons and something of the portraits’ aims. These were not icons for quiet contemplation, but boastful works to be shown to envious friends. The most common reaction by a chap’s colleagues to his latest John Smart portrait was almost certainly, I don’t know what a girl that beautiful sees in you.
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