Horace Walpole and His Collection of Miniatures by Jean-Étienne Liotard
by Christine Rheo Brandner
PhD student, History of Art, Yale University
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self-Portrait, c. 1765-67. Gouache on vellum, in a black wooden frame, 4.1 x 3.8 cm. Lewis Walpole Library, lwlpr33241a+b.
Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 445, ill. 656.
Among its many treasures, the Lewis Walpole Library houses a minute self-portrait of the Swiss artist Jean–Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) in gouache on vellum. The miniature originally belonged to Horace Walpole and was acquired by W.S. Lewis in 1954. The simple wooden frame was sealed on the reverse side with paper backing carrying an inscription in Walpole’s hand: “Liotard / by / Himself. / A / legacy / to/ Mr Horace Walpole / from Mrs M. Delany / 1788.” A later hand then added the following lines around the edges: “Purchased for me by Mr. Forster at Strawberry Hill. 10th May 1842. R. R. Preston.” The object underwent conservation in 2012; the paper backing was carefully removed and the glass and frame cleaned. The painting now appears wonderfully fresh and pristine.
Jean-Étienne Liotard, who is little known today, was famous throughout Europe during his lifetime for his exotic appearance. Born in Geneva and originally trained in Paris as a miniature painter, Liotard’s fortunes took a decisive turn in 1738 when he accepted an invitation by a group of English gentlemen, among them the Hon. William Ponsonby (Viscount Duncannon and later 2nd Earl of Bessborough) and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, to accompany them on their grand tour to Constantinople. The young tourists eventually returned home, but Liotard decided to stay on and attached himself to the household of the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte Everard Fawkener. He soon became the favorite portrait painter for expatriate communities in the Ottoman capital. Liotard’s work included black and red chalk drawings on paper recording intimate scenes of Europeans in oriental dress, who adopted the customs of their host country by sitting cross legged on cushions and drinking coffee, as well as more imposing paintings, such as a life size oil portrait of Richard Pococke, pioneer archaeologist of the Middle East.
European travelers to the Levant commonly adopted local costumes, including caftans and turbans, but upon returning to Europe, they shaved their beards and shed their oriental dress. (Gullström et al., 187.) Not so Liotard, who had taken a liking to the loose Turkish garments and continued to wear them throughout the rest of his life. In 1743, when the artist arrived in Vienna, he caused an immediate sensation with his oriental robes, large fur hat, and the long beard he had grown according to local custom while in Moldova at the court of prince Constantin Mavrocordato. He attracted the attention of Empress Maria-Theresa and soon received prestigious commissions at the imperial court.
In 1748, Liotard traveled on to Paris where he exhibited his beard and costume at the opera in order to stimulate interest in his person, and thus to enhance his business as a portraitist. In fact, some of Liotard’s critics claimed that his success depended entirely on his sartorial performance rather than on his talents as a painter. Madame Pompadour, royal mistress and powerful patron of the arts, commissioned Liotard to paint her but was less than pleased with the artist’s unflattering depiction. According to J.A. Dulaure, author of a treatise on the history of facial hair, the marquise curtly rejected Liotard’s portrait with the words: “Votre barbe fait tout votre mérite.” (Roethlisberger and Loche, Sources, 102.) While the anecdote most likely belongs to the realm of fantasy, Liotard’s self–staging as peintre turc continued to create excitement wherever he went.
In 1753, Horace Walpole described Liotard’s arrival in England in a letter to Horace Mann, pointing out the artist’s exotic looks: “From having lived in Constantinople he wears a Turkish habit and a beard down to his girdle: this and his extravagant prices, which he has raised even beyond what he asked at Paris, will probably get him as much money as he covets for he is avaricious beyond imagination.” (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:362.) It was no coincidence that Walpole should take notice of the artist’s debut in London in 1753, for the association between the two men had begun the previous year, when Walpole commissioned two portraits from the artist while he was still working in Paris. Charles Churchill, Walpole’s brother-in-law, acted as an intermediary in the complex negotiations between Liotard and two of Walpole’s favorite French dramatists, Crébillon the Younger and Pierre de Marivaux. Both agreed to sit for Liotard, but in the end Crébillon refused to give up his portrait to Walpole unless he received a copy of the original. (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:324f.) Faced with the doubling of the already exorbitant fee of sixteen guineas demanded by Liotard for his work, Walpole grudgingly admitted defeat. The miniature of Marivaux, however, was personally delivered to Walpole by Liotard and safely deposited in the cabinet of rosewood that contained his collection of enamels and miniatures. (Walpole, Description, 56.) The miniature is lost today, but Walpole recounted the story of its delivery to Horace Mann, giving particular attention to his first impression of the portrait: “Marivaux’s picture […] gives one a very different idea from what one conceives of the author of Marianne, though it is reckoned extremely like: the countenance is a mixture of buffoon and villain.” (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:362.) This short description opens a small window into Walpole’s use of such miniatures; he apparently submitted them to close inspection in order to draw conclusions about the character of the models based on their physiognomic features.
His cabinet also contained a miniature of “Liotard the painter, in Turkish dress, in enamel, by himself; given to Mr. Walpole by his sister Lady Mary Churchill.” (Walpole Description, 60.) In a watercolor of the cabinet by John Carter, the miniature can be seen on the inside of the right door.
It is unclear when the gift was made, but it is conceivable that Lady Mary purchased the miniature shortly after Liotard’s arrival in London. The enamel is inscribed on the back, identifying the artist and the date of creation: ‘‘Liotard / by Himself / 1753.’’ The portrait displays the exquisite finish Liotard was famous for, showing the artist in an oriental caftan of bright red silk, a white undergarment with embroidered flowers, wearing his usual red cap and sporting his trademark beard.
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self-Portrait in Profile, 1753. Enamel, 6.1 x 4.6 cm. The Royal Collection, London, RCIN 421436. Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 262, ill. 391.
Miniature portraits were composite artifacts that were manufactured from a variety of materials such as diamonds and other precious stones; many were encased in a locket to enhance tactility and control visibility. Walpole’s rosewood cabinet was itself a hybrid object, not only because it emulated the precious setting of the miniatures it sheltered, but also because it housed his portraits of famous men, valued for the moral example they embodied, together with objects of sentimental value for the owner. Walpole’s description of the cabinet lists miniature portraits of his siblings and parents among the pieces on display, including “two lockets in the shape of hearts, with hair of Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine Shorter, set with diamonds.” (Walpole, Description, 57.)
Enamel miniatures were intimate objects that could be held in one’s hands, and they were often worn on the body of their owners as jewelry. (Pointon, Miniature Portraits.) In order to facilitate the affective engagement with the depicted individual, the sitters were often represented en face so as to directly address the beholder. While the practice of the private exchange of miniatures and their visual display on the body continued throughout the eighteenth century, these small portraits were beginning to be cherished by collectors for their aesthetic rather than sentimental value. Unlike miniature objects of intense private significance, Liotard’s Self–Portrait of 1753 does not invite a passionate engagement or emotional reaction from the beholder. The stark profile standing out against a gleaming white background presents the artist as an object for the viewer’s detached reflection on the character and the merits of the sitter. Liotard’s features are foregrounded by a detailed depiction chosen to instill heightened interest in his exoticism. However, the exquisite finish of the enamel self–portrait also speaks to the technical ability of the artist and displays his skills and talent.
Today Liotard is best known for his larger portraits in pastel, but in the eighteenth century he was a celebrated miniaturist who employed a variety of techniques available at the time. Apart from enamel, Liotard also mastered the technique of gouache on vellum. His small self–portrait in the Lewis Walpole Library is painted in this traditional method that originally emerged from the workshops of book illuminators in the early sixteenth century; the English miniaturists Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619), and Peter Oliver (ca. 1594–1647) were pioneers of this genre. In contrast to the polished appearance of enamel work, vellum gives a velvety finish more akin to Liotard’s preferred medium of pastel. In the Lewis Walpole Library self-portrait, a minute sheet of vellum measuring only 4.1 by 3.8 centimeters sits in a deep wooden frame and is protected by glass. The square shape of the object, despite its small dimensions, is thus reminiscent of the common format of a large size portrait. The artist shows himself with his distinct red bonnet, a loose blue caftan, and a yellow undershirt in keeping with his usual Turkish attire. The white ruffled collar, however, is part of the traditional dress of his hometown of Geneva. The most striking feature of the painting is denoted by its absence — Liotard portrays himself without a beard, a detail duly noted by Walpole in his Description: “In the glass case near the window: A small head in water–colours of Liotard, without his beard, by himself; a legacy from Mrs. Delany.” (Walpole Description, 94.) According to this entry, the miniature was in Walpole’s possession as early as 1784 when the Description was published. The statement on the back of the frame, however, mentions the year 1788, the date of Mary Delany’s death. It is therefore likely that Walpole only added the inscription to memorialize his dear friend after her passing.
The style of the miniature and the artist’s appearance closely correspond to a series of self–portraits painted around 1768 while Liotard was stationed at Geneva. (Roethlisberger and Loche, Sources, no. 440-444, ill. 647-651.) The most notable difference to the full size Geneva portraits, which represent the artist directly looking at the beholder, is the miniature’s profile view of the head. Just like the enamel in Walpole’s possession, the vellum portrait invites close observation of the artist’s distinctive features. In contrast to the enamel miniature with its convex surface extending towards the viewer, however, Liotard’s watercolor portrait produces a sense of distance even if studied in close proximity. Paradoxically, it is precisely this fundamental and insurmountable distance that produces an immediate effect of presence. The miniature offers a surprising experience for beholders who, in fact, loose all sense of scale, drawn in by the exquisitely rendered details of the face. Despite its minute size, it gives a lively impression of the artist’s character, the slight smile playing around his lips hinting at a stoic disposition obtained by a life of adventurous experiences. Liotard’s eye, focused on a distant object, speaks of a professional ethos that aims at representing nature as closely as possible.
It is quite conceivable, considering Liotard’s business acumen, that he painted a number of such small-scale self–portraits to have them available for his clients, many of whom would have cherished a likeness of the famous peintre turc. Mrs. Delany, the original owner of the miniature, described a visit to Liotard’s studio in 1772, in a letter dated April 11: “Here is Miss Foley come to carry me off to Lestart’s [sic], where she is to sit for her picture. Just returned, not quite satisfied. The picture is like, but not favourably so; another sitting I hope will improve it. Lestart is a great artist in his way, but not a portrait painter, in my poor opinion.” (Paston, Memoir, 208.) In her will from Februrary 22, 1778, Mrs. Delany bequeathed another of Liotard’s self–portraits to her friend and benefactor the Duchess of Portland, this one a pastel of apparently bigger dimensions because it was kept in a “large square shagreen case.” (Ibid., 483.) Surprisingly, despite her low opinion of Liotard as a portraitist, Mary Delany nevertheless possessed at least two of his self–portraits.
Walpole’s own assessment of Liotard’s merits as a portraitist shows a similar ambivalence towards the artist’s works. On the one hand Walpole clearly cherished and collected Liotard’s portraits for their detailed depiction of the sitters, but on the other hand he deemed them stiff and ‘‘too like to please those who sat to him.” (Walpole Anecdotes, vol. 4, 195.) The miniature self–portrait at the Lewis Walpole Library seems to confirm Walpole’s opinion: it shows the artist represented with unflinching realism, without an attempt to idealize or improve the features of his face according to preconceived notions of artistic greatness and male pride. It is the humble representation of an artist whose life and work continue to fascinate us today because he defied the norms of social conduct and artistic style of his time with an independence of mind that marks him as a figure of the Enlightenment, as well as of modernity.
Coombs, Katherine, “Horace Walpole and the Collecting of Miniatures”, in Snodin, Michael, and Cynthia Roman (eds.), Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, 182-199. Exhibition organized by the Lewis Walpole Library, the Yale Center for British Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. On view at the Yale Center for British Art from 15 Oct. 2009 – 3 Jan. 2010, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 6 March – 4 July 2010. (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2010).
Gullström Beatrice, et al. (eds.), Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), Exhibition organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the National Galleries of Scotland. On view at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh 4 July – 13 Sept. 2015, and at the Royal Academy, London 24 Oct. 2015 – 31 Jan. 2016. (London: The Royal Academy, 2015).
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Paston, George, Mrs. Delany (Mary Granville, A Memoir 1700-1788. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. (London: Grant Richards, 1900).
Pointon Marcia, “‘Surrounded with Brilliants’: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England”, in The Art Bulletin, vol. 83, no. 1 (March 2001), 48–71.
Roethlisberger, Marcel and Rene Loche, Liotard: Catalogue sources et cor- respondance, avec la collaboration de Bodo Hofstetter et de Hans Boeckh pour les miniatures. 2. vols. (Doornspijk: Davaco Publishers, 2008).
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Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill Near Twickenham, Middlesex. With an Inventory of the Furniture, Pictures, Curiosities, &c. (Strawberry-Hill: Printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1774).
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