The Romance of Portraiture (September 1901)

Anecdotes concerning some noteworthy portraits. The text of the Sir John Dinely-Goodere handbill is just about readable if you zoom into the picture, and makes an amusing read. He required his prospective wives to have a certain minimum amount of money, which rose rapidly with age. 



It is much to be regretted that the useful and interesting hobby of portrait collecting, which at the latter end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries was as rampant and fashionable as stamp-collecting is now, is not more popular at the present time. In these days of cheap and rapid production, so many fine portraits are issued of our celebrated men and women, which, though of course not equal to the old ones from an artistic point of view, yet as portraits are of such excellence, and so low in price, that there is no reason why this intellectual occupation should not be indulged in by persons of the most limited means.

We, therefore, beg to submit the idea for the consideration of the readers of this Magazine, for it seems to offer not only a useful but remunerative employment, as there is little doubt that in course of time many of these portraits will become rare and valuable, a natural consequence of their cheapness and abundance, which prevents them from being preserved.

In the old days, when portraits were much more costly and difficult to obtain, whole fortunes were spent in accumulating this class of print, and many valuable and curious collections were the result. The majority of these have long since been dispersed, and much larger fortunes realized over the transaction than was ever dreamed of at the time of their collection. A few still remain, and it is from one of these which has come down to us in its complete state, and is noted for the number of its rare and curious specimens, that the portraits here reproduced have been selected.

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The equestrian portrait of Charles I., in the states shown here, was always a rara avis, and much sought after on account of the peculiar circumstances attending its issue and circulation. The plate, which is a large one, was engraved from a picture by Van Dyck, and was first issued during the reign of the unfortunate monarch represented. So long as the King retained his throne and popularity the sale of impressions from this plate proceeded satisfactorily enough, but after the tide turned, and the troublous times of the great rebellion, which ended in the King’s death, set in, this satisfactory state of things no longer prevailed, and the engraver found himself reduced to the direst straits. He therefore set to work to remedy matters, and like another well-known personage of the same period altered his opinions, and at the same time his plate, to suit the times. This he did by taking out by means of a scraper and hammer the head of Charles and inserting in its place that of Cromwell. So ingeniously was this carried out that it is only by means of a powerful glass that the alteration can be detected. In this state many impressions were taken off, and so great was the popularity of the Protector that the ingenious engraver soon realized quite a small fortune. It is sad, however, to relate that, notwithstanding all this, such is the weakness of poor human nature, at the Restoration he again altered his plate and opinions, reinserted the head of the dead King, and the portrait was as popular as ever. Several smaller alterations were also made, which a close observer will find some amusement in detecting. Thus, the King’s attendant, on becoming Cromwell’s, loses the frills at his knees, but finally recovers them, or another pair at least as good. Cromwell is deprived of Charles’s scarf, and the King himself, in the final impression, has to be content with a kind of brooch in place of it.

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The portrait of the illustrious Dick Whittington was another which underwent alterations to suit the public taste, for when it was first issued it appeared with a skull in the place of the cat; but Dick Whittington without his favourite could not be tolerated, and the consequence was that in order to sell his prints the engraver was compelled to erase the skull and substitute the cat. This animal, though perhaps not one of the most amiable looking, was the salvation of the engraver, as she had already been that of her master, for to one impression sold in its first state twenty sold in the second; and its value is even now very considerable, though the first state now realizes the highest price.

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The romantic circumstances under which our next portrait made its appearance are of exceptional interest. It is that of Sir John Dinely-Goodere. This amorous old gentleman, whose search for a wife rendered him notorious at the end of the eighteenth century, was of ancient lineage and good family. He lived at Windsor within the Castle precincts, where he had a small pension and a house allowed him as a Poor Knight of Windsor. Although poor, he had wonderful ideas of his ancient genealogy and of alliances subsisting between himself and the first families in the land; but his one aim in life was to marry, and for this purpose he had printed a large number of handbills, with a portrait of himself in the centre, on which were set forth the conditions under which he was willing to enter the matrimonial state. These handbills he carried about with him to be used as occasion offered, and also inserted advertisements in the daily papers to the same effect. Whether the ladies considered the conditions too onerous, or the Baronet too ancient, we are unable to decide, but Sir John, though he persevered for a number of years, never succeeded in his object, and died in 1809 at the age of eighty.

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Our next portrait has a still more romantic story. This handsome young lady was the daughter of the famous Count Platoff, Hetman of the Cossacks, very popular in this country in Napoleonic days, for he was one of the most implacable enemies of the French. During the disastrous retreat from Moscow he did fearful execution in the ranks of the French army with his twenty regiments of Cossacks; and so great was his hatred of the Emperor that he offered to give his daughter in marriage, together with a fortune of 200,000 roubles, to whoever would capture and bring the little Corsican to him, alive or dead.

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In order to encourage competition this portrait was circulated with the proclamation, and no doubt there were many competitors in the field, though none of them succeeded in winning the prize. At a public dinner in Edinburgh at the time the Lord Provost toasted this lady in the following words: “Miss Platoff, the fair Cossack, and her patriotic father. May she soon be blessed with a deserving husband, that both she and the nations of Europe may rejoice.” The toast created a sensation, and was followed by a burst of applause from the assembled guests.

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As a family piece the portrait group of the Remington family is certainly unique, and if pictures were painted by the yard one might be led to conclude that economy was the main consideration in this case, the most for money having certainly been secured, while composition is chiefly remarkable for its absence. Fifteen living children are here depicted–a fair quiverful of themselves. But what makes the picture unique is the treatment of the children who died in infancy, and who are littered promiscuously about the floor. Apart from these, the painting reminds one of the stockbroker who, with his baker’s dozen, paid a visit to Hoppner and inquired what he would paint the lot for. The great painter replied that it would depend entirely upon the dimensions, style, and composition. “Oh!” said the broker, “that is all settled. We are all to be touched off in one piece as large as life, all seated on our lawn at Clapham, and all singing ‘God save the King.'”

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The rarity of the curious portrait following this, and the strange stories connected with the man himself, is sufficient to account for its presence in the collection. This is the man who robbed Lady Fairfax of her gold watch, picked Oliver Cromwell’s pocket as he was coming out of the House of Commons, and robbed Charles II. of a collection of valuable plate while he was staying at Cologne. His real name was Cottington, but he acquired the name of “Mulled Sack,” from his fondness for that liquor. He was originally a chimney-sweep, an allusion to which is no doubt suggested by the figure emerging from the chimney, but afterwards became an expert thief, and was noted for his daring exploits and gallantry with ladies, many of whom he deceived and afterwards robbed. For many years this print, which was found in an old book, was considered unique, and realized large sums of money when on sale, but two others have since been found and its renown is somewhat diminished. The scene is in the seventeenth century, and forms a striking contrast to the same place as depicted on the cover of this Magazine.

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The bottom of the sea is not the most likely place to look for portraits, yet here is one which has been there and appears little the worse for its adventure. It was recovered from the wreck of the Don Juan, the yacht in which Shelley was drowned off the coast of Italy, July 8th, 1822, together with the original of this picture, Captain Edward Elliker Williams, his great personal friend, who accompanied him on this ill-fated voyage. The two were inseparable companions, and Williams was the “Melchior” of Shelley’s “Boat on the Serchio.” He assisted the poet in many of his undertakings, wrote a translation of “Spinoza” at Shelley’s dictation, and copied his “Hellas” for the Press. The portrait was drawn by Williams himself, and is the only one of him, we believe, in existence.

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