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GEORGE RICHMOND, R.A. (1809-1896)
  • GEORGE RICHMOND, R.A. (1809-1896)


    Black, white & red chalks on buff paper

    56 x 42 cm



    Private collection, Southeast England





    The identity of this strikingly handsome sitter is presently not known, and it does not appear to relate to the several hundred portraits by Richmond in major British and American institutions. It is, however, entirely typical of Richmond’s portraits in chalks: the papers Richmond used have a tendency to darken over time, as the present sheet has, although this often produces a pleasing contrast and slightly dramatic feel to the works. For a  representative example of a portrait in much the same condition, with identical handling of chalks (the idiosyncratic and very distinctive lightly criss-crossing lines in the shading in particular), see the artist's ‘Portrait of William Cureton’, National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 3164). 



    George Richmond studied first at the Royal Academy, where he is known to have been regarded as a prodigious talent, even in comparison to some of his renowned peers at the time. In his early adulthood, Richmond became part of the circle of friends known as ‘The Ancients’, a loosely-knit group of young artists and poets centred around the older poet William Blake. They were united in a vague belief in classical man’s superiority and the importance of the natural world, drawing inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology, Christian imagery, literature, especially the poetry of Milton and Spencer, and the work of Shakespeare, as well as the natural world. Whilst dwelling in Shoreham, the home of the elderly Blake, Richmond worked alongside several fellow artists, including Samuel Palmer. Colin Harrison of the Ashmolean Museum wrote that Richmond "outdid his close friend [Palmer] the Michelangelesque contortions of his figures (for Palmer was never a conventionally accomplished draughtsman), and joined him in experimenting in weird combinations of media." [1] Richmond was, even by the standards of his fellows at this time, very close to Blake himself, even sitting at his deathbed in 1827. He would do the same 54 years later for his lifelong and "dearest friend on Earth" Samuel Palmer, and was himself deeply affected by both deaths. Another lifelong friend of Richmond's whose life was, in many ways, not an easy one and at times very turbulent, was John Ruskin. Richmond stayed close with the artist-writer, even as he lost many of his friends during his darkest moments of the depression that recurred throughout his life. 


    Despite such mystical beginnings, Richmond’s need to support a young family and his nascent reputation as a seriously accomplished portraitist led him down a more traditional path than his fellow Ancients, though he remained close to a number of the beyond Palmer throughout his life. That being said, Susan Sloman has noted that "The path of Richmond's career, from Blake-inspired painter and illustrator to high-earning portraitist can be interpreted rather negatively, as the triumph of pragmatism over imagination, but, as the artist's drawings, diaries and correspondence...reveal, he never lost his early idealism or curiosity." [2]


    Over the course of his career, he would go on to draw and paint much of the British aristocracy, Royal Family, the most senior clergy (he had a close relationship with Oxford University and many of the leading Anglican clerics of his day), and numerous other distinguished sitters of all stripes. Dozens, if not hundreds, of these portraits were later engraved, providing a valuable record of the appearance and, to some extent, the characters of much of the British establishment of the 19th century. 


    A significant part of Richmond's practice lay in conversation with his sitters, encouraging them to talk about their interests and passions so that they let their guard down and relaxed into the sitting. His portraits have been noted for their sympathetic touch, with no sitter ever caricatured and very often something of their actual character transposed onto the page or canvas - a rare achievement that very few portraitists can lay claim to, with even fewer capable of repeating it so often as Richmond did. 


    Richmond worked across a variety of media, with his portraits usually either in watercolour, oils, coloured chalks on  brown paper, or pen and ink, demonstrating considerable versatility. Huon Mallalieu, in his seminal text on British watercolourists, described Richmond's works in that medium as “…portraits in watercolour of a particular delicacy and brilliance…” and “…quite the best portraits of the time in watercolour, showing rapidity and sureness of handling and a strong sense of the character of the sitter as well as his likeness.” [3]

    • NOTES

      [1] C. Harrison, in Missing Pages - George Richmond R.A. (exhib. cat.), Agnew's, London (2001), 'Introduction'

      [2] S. Sloman, in ibid., p.1

      [3] H. Mallalieu, The Dictionary of British Watercolours Artists up to 1920, Antique Collectors Club (2002), vol. II, p.129

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