We are busy preparing for the Winter Show at the end of this month and excited to be taking a range of exciting new discoveries to New York. Amongst them, will be seven newly discovered drawings by John Hamilton Mortimer, available now in our online exhibition.
John Hamilton Mortimer was one of the most impressive British draughtsman of the second half of the eighteenth century. This cache of recently discovered drawings date from the beginning of his professional career and demonstrate both his versatility and virtuosity. The sheets include a life drawing, studies made in preparation for an early publishing project commissioned by John Boydell and a number of spirited studies showing the ambitious range of subject-matter Mortimer attempted. Unknown to John Sunderland, these drawings add to our understanding of Mortimer as one of the most original artistic figures working in London in the decade before the foundation of the Royal Academy.
John Hamilton Mortimer was born in Eastbourne, Sussex the fifth and youngest child of Thomas Mortimer, a mill owner and customs officer. The landscape painter and diarist, Joseph Farington recorded that Mortimer: ‘he began to draw when very young.’ In 1756 or 1757 Mortimer's father paid £100 for him to work in the studio of Thomas Hudson. By the 1750s an artistic system had emerged in Britain which meant drawing from the antique and life model were largely taught in a series of private organisations – including the St Martin’s Lane Academy and Shipley’s drawing academy – whilst the practical role of a painter was learnt in the atelier of an established master. In Hudson’s studio, we know, Mortimer would have been taught to draw, initially by copying old master drawings or prints from Hudson’s own collection. Mortimer’s earliest biographers tell us that he grew tired of Hudson’s studio regime and left after a year. Hudson’s most famous student, Joshua Reynolds, similarly rebelled over the repetitive nature of Hudson’s teaching method. Mortimer worked instead with the painter and political radical, Robert Edge Pine.
We have a sense of Mortimer’s powers as a draughtsman at this period from a series of highly finished drawings after sculptures and life-drawings preserved in the collection of the Society of Arts. Two of the life drawings are signed and dated 1758 and 1759, they were probably made at the St Martin’s Lane Academy. Mortimer was awarded a premium by the Society of Arts for the second drawing, the Minutes recording ‘Drawings of Human Figures from living Models at Academy of Artists in St. Martin’s Lane, in Chalks, by Young Men under 24 years to divide 30 Guineas… 1759 John Mortimer pupil of Mr Pine, 2nd share.’ At the same time Mortimer was drawing from casts. An article in The Monthly Magazine noted:
‘whilst he was here [with Hudson], and for a considerable time afterwards, he attended the Duke of Richmond’s Gallery, which was, indeed, his school, and where his assiduity, his exertions, and his opening powers were so much noticed by Cipriani, and the late Mr Moser, that they represented him so favourably to the illustrious nobleman… that he wished very much to have retained him in his house.’
The Italian painter Giovanni Battista Cipriani had a profound effect upon the young Mortimer. As John Sunderland noted, Mortimer adopted from Cipriani a free technique of drawing with the pen, or point of the brush, and ink, together with the fluent use of sepia or ink wash in the shadows to suggest form. Cipriani, who came to England in 1756, had been influenced in Florence by Antonio Domenico Gabbiani, from whom he probably learned his drawing style, a standard Italian late Baroque form of draughtsmanship. This rapid method of drawing was adopted by Mortimer in his more informal studies and is used in six of the drawings described here.
Mortimer practiced as both a successful portraitist and historical painter, whilst simultaneously producing a stream of finished ink drawings that attracted the attention of not only print makers but the most distinguished connoisseurs and collectors of the period. J.T. Smith recorded Ignazio Sancho telling an anecdote to Joseph Nollekens about Mortimer and the celebrated collector Richard Payne Knight:
‘Mr. Knight happening to call upon Mortimer at his house in Church Court, Covent Garden, expressed his uneasiness at the melancholy mood in which he found him. ‘Why, sir,’ observed Mortimer, ‘I have many noble and generous friends, it is true; but of all my patrons, I don’t know one whom I could now ask to purchase an hundred guineas’ worth of drawings of me, and I am at this moment seriously in want of that sum.’ ‘Well, then,’ observed Mr Knight, ‘bring as many sketches as you would part with for that sum to me to-morrow, and dine with me… Mr Knight gave him two hundred guineas, which he insisted the drawings were worth.’
For Payne Knight, the appeal of Mortimer’s drawings undoubtedly lay partly in their technical virtuosity and partly in Mortimer’s ability to successfully absorb the style of fashionable Italian old master draughtsman. Mortimer became particularly associated with Salvator Rosa, whose drawing style he emulated in sheets depicting banditti and sea monsters. Significantly, Knight included a significant number of drawings by Mortimer in the collection of sheets by old masters he left to the British Museum.
The present group of drawings show Mortimer’s fascination with earlier, old master drawings. The rapid pen and wash studies include depictions of St Jerome, Apollo destroying Niobe’s children, river gods and fishermen hauling-in a dead body, a drawing that shows Mortimer’s interest in Rosa. A rare life drawing points to Mortimer’s continued interest in art education and his active encouragement of a sequence of drawing academies founded in London before 1768. Whilst not highly finished sheets, these beautifully executed sheets point to the variety of Mortimer’s interests and raise significant questions about his technique and appeal in the eighteenth century.