Gallery buys portrait of legendary 18th century actor with Art Fund help

  • 29 July 2009

The National Portrait Gallery has bought Sir Thomas Lawrence's outstanding but rarely-seen portrait of the leading 18th and early 19th-century actor and theatre manager John Philip Kemble. Entitled John Philip Kemble as Cato, the painting hung in the artist's home until his death and will be included in the Gallery's major exhibition of Lawrence's work announced today and opening in autumn 2010.

John Philip Kemble as Cato has been acquired for a net price of £178,500 after tax concessions by Private Treaty Sale through Joseph Friedman Ltd acting on behalf of Mr John Philips of The Heath House, Staffordshire. It was purchased with help from Gift Aid Visitor ticket donations, Gallery supporters and a grant of £55,000 from The Art Fund, the UK’s largest independent art charity.

At over eight feet tall and five feet wide, this monumental oil painting shows Kemble at the height of his career in the leading role of Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato, in its 1811 revival. The portrait, which is little known by the British public having remained in a private collection apart from a single loan in 1983, is now expected to become one of the highlights of the Gallery’s Regency Collection.

This is one of Lawrence’s most outstanding portraits and one of the finest of a group of four experimental works in a new genre that Lawrence developed, which he called the ‘half-history picture’. Painted a decade after the first three ‘half-history’ portraits, Kemble as Cato (1812) was the only one of the group to be commissioned and – the product of Lawrence’s maturity of style and technique – was declared by the artist to be his best portrait of Kemble.

A tightly controlled and intensely philosophical portrait, Kemble as Cato focuses on the moment when Cato, unable to repel Caesar’s forces, performs a soliloquy related to Plato’s Book on the Immortality of the Soul. The glinting dagger on the table reminds us that he is preparing to take his own life to preserve his dignity in the face of defeat.

Just as Cato was defending Rome against invasion by Caesar so this scene had particular resonance for contemporary English audiences who, faced with the threat of Napoleonic invasion, saw Kemble in the role of Cato as a figure of resistance against foreign invaders and as a powerful symbol of national identity, individual liberties and patriotism.

When exhibited in 1812, the picture was widely admired, being praised not only for its likeness of Kemble but as a work that transcended the limits of portraiture and ‘belonged to the highest school of history’. Lawrence was also pleased with the painting and when it was returned to him to make a reduced copy, for the actor Charles Mathews, the artist never returned it to its owner – the 1st Earl of Blessington. Instead, he used it as an advertisement of his talent by hanging it prominently at his fashionable new house in Russell Square. He wrote to the artist Joseph Farington: ‘my front room is my show room, over the chimney of which is already placed my Cato’. This is where the painting remained until Lawrence’s death in 1830, at which time the Earl of Blessington’s executors had to apply to Lawrence’s estate for its return.

The painting will join one of the world’s finest and most accessible collections of Lawrence's paintings and will provide the Gallery with its only portrait of Kemble at the height of his career as an actor, manager and public figure.

John Philip Kemble was the leading actor and theatre manager of his day while Thomas Lawrence was the leading portrait painter of Regency Britain and the only British portraitist to have an international reputation at that time.

Dr Lucy Peltz, 18th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘I’m delighted that the Gallery has been able to acquire Lawrence’s magnificent portrait of John Philip Kemble as Cato. As the finest and most resolved of Lawrence’s "half-history" portraits, the work will enrich the Gallery’s capacity to explore the crucial dialogue between history painting and portraiture in the period, and will thus allow the Gallery to present a richer and more balanced account of the development of portraiture in the early 19th century.’

Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund, says: ‘Sir Thomas Lawrence considered this dramatic depiction of the great actor John Kemble playing the part of Cato contemplating his death after his defeat by Caesar one of his very best works. It has been in private hands since it was painted and I’m delighted that The Art Fund has helped secure it for public ownership by the National Portrait Gallery.’

John Philip Kemble as Cato is now on public display in the Regency Collection in the Weldon Galleries of the National Portrait Gallery (Room 19) where it will remain until the autumn, when it will be removed for conservation prior to the National Portrait Gallery’s forthcoming Lawrence exhibition (21 Oct 2010 – 23 Jan 2011).

The exhibition is being co-curated with Yale Center for British Art and will also be shown at the Center in New Haven, Connecticut (24 Feb- 5 Jun 2011). The exhibition will be accompanied by a major catalogue published by Yale University Press.

Ends

For further press information please contact: Neil Evans, Senior Press Officer, National Portrait Gallery. Tel: 020 7312 2452 (not for publication)

Email nevans@npg.org.uk

Notes to editors

John Philip Kemble as Cato (1757-1823)

By Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Full length portrait

Oil on canvas, 1812

254 x 177.8cm (104 x 70 in)

John Philip Kemble – the sitter

John Philip Kemble made his London debut at Drury Lane in 1783 and in the following years, often acting opposite his sister Sarah Siddons, he won acclaim as Britain’s leading tragic actor in roles such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Cato and Coriolanus. Between 1788 and 1796 he was also actor-manager at Drury Lane, under Richard Brinsley Sheridan, until he and his sister Sarah Siddons defected to Covent Garden Theatre where he became manager and part-owner. Between 1808 and 1809 Kemble’s fame turned to infamy as weeks of politically-charged public agitation – known as the Old Price riots – raged in response to his controversial new pricing of theatre seats following the rebuilding of Covent Garden Theatre after a devastating fire in 1808. Much of the ‘animus’ of the rioters was personally directed at Kemble who was accused of having an aloof and aristocratic demeanour which, in part, was linked with the way his public image was connected to autocratic roles such as Coriolanus and King John.

Sir Thomas Lawrence – the artist

Beginning as a child prodigy working in pastels, the gifted Thomas Lawrence eventually succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as Britain’s greatest portrait painter. His virtuosity lay in his strong feeling for individual character, his dazzling brushwork and his innovative use of colour to evoke mood. With the temperament and flair to capture the glamour of the age, Lawrence created the image of Regency high society, politics and theatre. One of the major turning points of his career was when the Prince Regent commissioned him to travel to the Continent to paint full-length portraits of the allied victors over Napoleon in 1815. The impact of these works ensured that Lawrence became the first British artist to achieve a significant international reputation and influence. On his return from the Continent he was elected President of the Royal Academy.

The Art Fund

The Art Fund is the UK’s leading independent art charity. It offers grants to help UK museums and galleries enrich their collections; campaigns on behalf of museums and their visitors; and promotes the enjoyment of art. It is entirely funded from public donations and has 80,000 members. Since 1903 the charity has helped museums and galleries all over the UK secure 860,000 works of art for their collections. Recent achievements include: helping secure Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London in February 2009 with a grant of £1 million; helping secure Anthony d’Offay’s collection, ARTIST ROOMS, for Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in February 2008 with a grant of £1million; and running the ‘Buy a Brushstroke’ public appeal which raised over £550,000 to keep Turner’s Blue Rigi watercolour in the UK. For more information contact the Press Office on 020 7225 4888 or visit www.artfund.org

The Art Fund is a Registered Charity No. 209174

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