Writing in 1743 George Vertue observed in one of his notebooks that the most skilled living drapery painter was Joseph van Aken:
‘Mr Van acken – whose draperys silks satins Velvets, gold & embroideryes which he dos paint for several of them painters extreamly well- and is a great addition to their works and indeed puts them so much on a Level that its very difficult to know one hand from another.’
It is a statement which neatly communicates the division of labour which was central to the profession of painting in eighteenth-century London. Portraitists completed the face and hands, whilst drapery painters were responsible for the pose and costume. Modern scholarship tends to cast this division as one of the superior portrait painter and inferior or client drapery painter, but contemporary accounts, such as Vertue’s notebooks, point to Joseph van Aken’s celebrity and importance. Drapery painters were frequently regarded as master technicians and artists with a status parallel to that of portraitists, the drapery painter Peter Toms, for example, was a founder member of the Royal Academy. The present portrait, which was executed by the painter with whom van Aken had the longest and most successful collaboration, Thomas Hudson, is therefore a hugely important document for understanding the commercial and creative apparatus of eighteenth-century portrait studios. It is also a portrait which underlines Hudson’s abilities as a painter; it was clearly highly regarded by Hudson who had it engraved and published by John Faber.
Joseph van Aken moved to London about 1720 with his artist brothers Arnold and Alexander. His Flemish-style conversation pieces, such as An English Family at Tea (Tate Gallery, London), painted on arrival in England proved fashionable and his crowded city scenes, such as The Stocks Market (Bank of England, London) and Covent Garden Market (Museum of London) are important topographical views of London. From early in his career, van Aken and his brother, Alexander, were noted as drapery painters. From 1735 the van Akens began to work closely with a number of fashionable portraitists, particularly Thomas Hudson. Hudson, the son-in-law of Jonathan Richardson, was the most fashionable portraitist of the second quarter of the eighteenth century, hugely prolific he produced portraits of most of the leading figures of the period. Hudson’s highly successful practice was based in Covent Garden where he employed a large studio which included amongst his apprentices Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Worlidge and Joseph Wright of Derby. To handle the volume of commissions Hudson relied upon the services of a drapery painter. Vertue noted in 1744 that:
‘It is truly observd that Hudson has lately more success and approbation than the other or any other of ye busines – at present a great Run – his pictures being dressd and decorated by Mr Joseph Van Aken – who is a very elegant and ingenious painter. Serves & helps him and other painters to dress and set off their pictures to advantage he having an excellent free Genteel and florid manner of pencelling Silks Sattins Velvets. Gold laceings Carvings &c.’
For Vertue, Hudson’s success was entirely predicated on his creative partnership with van Aken. Vertue alludes to the process involved, heads would have been completed in Hudson’s studio and the canvas then carried to van Aken’s workshop for the addition of the figure and drapery. Anecdotally, it was for refusing to carry a portrait to van Aken’s studio, that the young Joshua Reynolds left his apprenticeship with Hudson. The visual evidence for van Aken’s involvement in creating portraits in the 1730s and 1740s comes in the form of a remarkable group of drapery studies preserved in the Scottish National Gallery which relate to van Aken’s work with both Hudson and Allan Ramsay. They show the kind of dress and poses van Aken added to both Hudson and Ramsay’s heads and suggest his importance for introducing and popularising Van Dyck costume amongst patrician sitters in the 1730s. Indeed van Aken and his brother worked for a generation of portrait painters including Isaac Whood, Hamlet Winstanley and Henry Pickering underscoring Vertue’s observation that ‘its very difficult to know one hand from another.’
Van Aken’s success enabled him to form his own collection of works of art, which included Rembrandt's The Entombment (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). His substantial collection was dispersed in several impressive auctions. Contemporary evidence shows that van Aken won the respect and friendship of fellow artists and joined Hogarth, Hudson, Francis Hayman, and the sculptor Henry Cheere on a trip to Paris in 1748, going on to Flanders and the northern Netherlands with Hudson and Cheere to visit some of the leading continental painters of the day. The close creative relationship between Hudson and van Aken is further underlined by their joint acquisition of lots from Jonathan Richardson’s sale of drawings in 1746, as Vertue noted with Hudson: ‘Mr Van Aken jointly bought also drawings paintings &c.’
The fact that Hudson and van Aken purchased lots together, suggests that they were appreciative that their purchases had a practical application in the lives of their respective studios. At the sale of Richardson’s paintings the same year, a priced copy in the Houlditch MS reveals, van Aken purchased £36.12.6 worth of paintings and Hudson £92.15.
The present portrait is therefore a striking image of Joseph van Aken by his closest professional collaborator. Hudson depicts van Aken holding his palette and brushes in his left hand and a porte crayon in his right; to complete the sense of van Aken as an active artist, Hudson places a blank canvas in the foreground and dresses him in a loose jacket and distinctive fur hat. van Aken’s dress is entirely typical of the costume adopted by contemporary artists in their self-portraits. Hogarth frequently depicted himself without his wig but wearing a soft hat of some description. The fur hat immediately recalls Rembrandt and works by contemporary artists, such as the Italian painter Francesco Trevisani. The handling of the sitter in the present portrait is a long way from Dutch models and suggests Hudson’s interest in contemporary French and Italian painting whilst he foreshortened hands, bold shadow and painterly handling all demonstrate Hudson’s abilities as a portraitist.
Van Aken died in London on 4 July 1749, leaving a widow but no children. He was buried in St Pancras Church in London. At his death his two principal collaborators, Hudson and Ramsay, were joint executors of his will. The present portrait was almost certainly retained by Hudson in his personal collection and eventually dispersed in his own sale after his death.
Shortly after van Aken’s death, Vertue noted:
The Ingenious Mr Joseph VanhAcken painter (had been 30 years or more in England) haveing catchd cold fell into a Feavour of which in about a fortnights Time he dyd – aged about 50 – a man of good compleaxion a good round fatt face and shortish stature. A small cast with one Eye.
The present portrait is therefore a powerful testament of both Hudson and van Aken’s professional relationship and their friendship. The image also stands as important evidence of the relationship between portraitist and drapery painter in the generation before the foundation of the Royal Academy. A masterpiece within Hudson’s own oeuvre, it represents an important link between the portraiture of the early eighteenth century and that of Hudson’s greatest pupil: Sir Joshua Reynolds.
- G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1933, III, p.117.
- For the best account of Hudson’s studio see Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action, New Haven and London, 2014, pp.33-42.
- G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1933, III, p.123.
- E. G. Miles, Thomas Hudson 1701-1779, Portrait painter and collector. A bicentenary exhibition, Exh. cat., London (Kenwood House), 1979, p.5.
- Alastair Smart, Allan Ramsay: Painter, Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 1992, pp.60-64.
- G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1933, III, p.135.
- G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1933, III, p.150.