This grand and imposing portrait of Francis Owen is widely considered the masterpiece of Jean-Étienne Liotard’s second London period. Painted in 1773 on an unusually large scale, the portrait is executed in oil, a medium rare in Liotard’s oeuvre, yet it is handled with all the minute sophistication, compositional innovation and psychological power he generally reserved for his works in pastel. The portrait shows the young landowner, Francis Owen in seventeenth-century costume, displaying Liotard’s awareness of fashionable British ‘Grand Manner’ portraiture at precisely the moment he was entering his own pictures for exhibition at the newly founded Royal Academy. The sitter died within a year of the painting’s completion, it passed to his sister, and has remained with her descendants in Wales since 1777.
Liotard was already well known when he visited Britain for the second time in 1772, at the age of 71. Matthew Pilkington, writing in The Gentleman's and Connoisseur's Dictionary of Painters in 1770, commented that Liotard’s portraits showed: ‘astonishing force, and beauty of tint; with a striking resemblance of his models; a remarkable roundness and relief; and an exact imitation of life and nature in all the subjects he painted.’ Liotard was sufficiently respected to be approached by the Society of Arts in November 1772 to give an opinion on the quality of crayons submitted by Charles Pache. Liotard provided the Society with a certificate declaring that ‘the crayons of Mr Pache are as good as those of Stoupan, and that the dark Browns are rather more beautiful.’ As Neil Jeffares has established, Liotard probably lodged at 50 Great Marlborough Street where he opened a public exhibition of his collection of Old Masters and own work in 1773.
Liotard also established a successful portrait practice. His sitters included members of the Ponsonby family and their relations. Liotard had first met William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough in Italy in the 1730s before travelling with him to Constantinople. In 1773 Liotard produced a portrait of his sons Frederick, Viscount Duncannon, William and George Ponsonby. The sensitive portrait of Viscount Duncannon was exhibited by Liotard at the Royal Academy in 1773 along with a now missing portrait of his tutor, Dr Samuel Wells Thomson. Liotard produced two portraits of another Irish peer, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil and his wife, Grace Foley. Clanbrassil and Bessborough were both members of the Society of Dilettanti, friends and political allies. Surviving correspondence also shows that Clanbrassil acted as an agent for Bessborough purchasing antiquities, gems and books for Bessborough whilst resident in Paris. Like Bessborough, Clanbrassil had a political career in Britain as well as Ireland, sitting as MP for Helston in Cornwall. This may explain how Francis Owen came to sit to Liotard at the same date.
Clanbrassil had been returned for the constituency of Helston in 1768 on the interest of Francis, 2nd Lord Godolphin whose first wife, Lady Barbara Bentinck, was a sister of Clanbrassil’s mother. Clanbrassil was forced to make way in 1774 for Francis Godolphin Osborne, Marquess of Carmarthen and later 5th Duke of Leeds, the grandson of Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. Helston returned two MPs for the Godolphin interest and in 1774 the second was Francis Owen. Owen was himself a member of the Godolphin family, his mother, Mary, was Francis, 2nd Lord Godolphin’s sister, making Clanbrassil’s mother Owen’s aunt by marriage. The two MPs for Helston, Clanbrassil and Owen, both therefore sat to Liotard within months of each other and it is likely that Clanbrassil introduced Owen to Liotard.
Francis Owen was born in 1745 the son of William Owen, a wealthy landowner from Brogyntyn, or Porkington in Selatyn, Shropshire. He was educated at Eton, where his grandfather, the Rev. Henry Godolphin had been Provost, and at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1773 he was a wealthy and eligible young man on the brink of a political career. Liotard’s portrait shows him in a fashionable guise, dressed in seventeenth-century costume. At this date ‘Van Dyck’ costume was a highly popular mode for patrician portraiture. As William Hauptman has pointed out, Liotard profited from the artistic opportunities available to him in London during the 1770s, exhibiting works at the recently founded Royal Academy and selling paintings at Christie’s. Liotard would undoubtedly have seen portraits where the sitters were posed in seventeenth-century costume. Joshua Reynolds had recently completed his full-length portrait of the Welsh landowner, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn and his first wife, Lady Henrietta Somerset, now in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, in which he showed the sitters in seventeenth-century masquerade costume, complete with masks. Williams Wynn had constructed a theatre at his house, Wynnstay, where there were regular amateur theatricals. It is perhaps significant to note that Wynn was a close neighbour of the Owens, who lived less than ten miles away at Brogyntyn, and there is evidence that young Francis attended theatricals at Wynnstay.
Reynolds’s portrait of Lord Robert Spencer sets an even closer precedent for Liotard’s depiction of Owen; Reynolds shows Spencer in a theatrical red cloak, doublet with slashed sleeves, ruff and velvet breeches, sword at his side and holding a mask. Liotard omits the more obviously theatrical props of mask and sword, but shows Owen in billowing cloak, doublet with slashed sleeves ruff and velvet breeches. Liotard also dresses the portrait with drapery and column suggesting that he was attempting to appropriate the language of Baroque portraiture, rather than depict Owen in accurate masquerade costume.
Liotard seems to have had a model by Van Dyck in mind for the pose itself. Owen is shown with his right hand on his hip and left hand pointing down in a distinctive gesture. This formation is borrowed from Van Dyck’s portrait of Nicolaes van der Borght in reverse. Liotard is unlikely to have known the portrait itself, which was in Antwerp, but probably knew the engraving by Cornelis Vermeulen engraved in reverse in 1703. Vermeulen’s print not only provides the model for Owen’s left hand and lace cuff, but it also provides the design of his doublet, with bows and buttons, the ruff and even the fall of the cloak; Liotard has followed the highlights in Vermeulen’s depiction of van der Borght’s cloak precisely. The source for Owen’s pose has not previously been noted and it offers a new perspective on Liotard’s inventive use of prints. If, as Roethlisberger and Loche suggest, Liotard based Owen’s face on a miniature portrait by Richard Crosse, the portrait can be viewed as a sophisticated act of visual synthesis.
Unlike Liotard’s other British portraits of the period, which were largely executed in pastel, his portrait of Owen is executed in oil on canvas. Liotard worked consistently in oil throughout his career, with a series of notable canvases produced around 1770. In 1774, the year after he completed the portrait of Owen, Liotard showed a genre scene La Beurrée and a self-portrait at the Royal Academy, both were executed in oil. What makes Liotard’s portrait of Francis Owen particularly important is its scale and technical ambition as well as its extraordinary state of preservation, it remains unlined. Liotard has attempted to capture the facture, lustre and palette of a pastel portrait in oil. As with his most successful pastels, Liotard has used areas of bright local colour, in the case of Owen, the rich golden ochre of the doublet. Similarly Liotard has attempted to suggest a range of textures, from the diamond buttons, to the dark blue velvet of Owen’s breeches. Owen’s face is modelled with a careful cast shadow and minute brushwork, handling which immediately recalls Liotard’s most successful pastel portraits of the period.
Shortly after the portrait was delivered, and before Owen could have a chance to take up his seat in parliament, he was killed by the fall of a bridge over which he was riding. The portrait passed to his sister, Margaret, who married Owen Ormsby in 1777 and remained with their descendants until 2017. Despite being exhibited in Cardiff in 1948, it remained in comparative obscurity until published by Roethlisberger and Loche in 2008 who praised the portrait, noting:
‘Ce portrait, cite pour la première fois en 1948, inconnu du public, d’une conservation parfait, s’impose comme une des oeuvres les plus étonnantes de Liotard. Parmi la petite douzaine de portraits documentés de ce séjour anglais, il est de loin le plus ambitieux, le seul en costume historique avec mise en scène monumentale, le seul peint à l’huile, et un des plus grands formats de l’artiste (moins grand toutefois que les portraits en pied de Constantinople).’
- Matthew Pilkington, The Gentleman’s and Connoisseurs Dictionary of Painters, London, 1779, p.351.
- Quoted in Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, online edition.
- Quoted in Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800 online edition.
- See Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche, Liotard, Catalogue Sources et Correspondence, Doornspijk, 2008, vol. I, cat. no’s. 496, 497 and 498, pp.622-623.
- For Clanbrassil’s correspondence with Bessborough see: Bessborough Papers, file.77, 2nd Earl’s correspondence with Lord Clanbrassil.
- See Rachel Finnegan, ‘The Classical Taste of William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough’, in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies: The Journal of the Irish Georgian Society, 2005, vol.8, pp.12-43.
- William Hauptman, ‘British Royal and Society Portraits’, in eds. Christopher Baker, William Hauptman, MaryAnne Stevens et al., Jean-Etienne Liotard 1702-1789, exh. cat., Edinburgh (National Galleries of Scotland), 2015, p.101.
- National Library of Wales, Brogyntyn Estate and Family Records, PEC5/7/67.
- Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche, Liotard, Catalogue Sources et Correspondence, Doornspijk, 2008, vol. I, pp. 615-6, no. 487.