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1777 The News From America

The Exhibition of 1777 was the first to follow the American Declaration of Independence in July 1776. Disappointingly, most of the works on display in Pall Mall seem to have registered the subject only in the most sublimated forms. The American-born Benjamin West, who once painted historical subjects for the king that conveyed learned philosophical reflections on colonial government,1 largely retreated from subject painting to royal portraits and a portrait of his own family, a “neat little scene of domestic happiness”, according to one critic.2 Yet even this didn’t exempt him from suspicion in the press: “Where are those flights of genius, which this artist has frequently shown to an indulgent public? Were they engaged with his rebellious friends in America?”3

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One work, which did directly reference the American crisis, was not a Grand Manner History Painting but The Politician by Stephen Elmer ARA (Fig. 1).4 It comes as a jolt to see Stephen Elmer ranked among the first order of artists in the newspaper criticism of 1777. Yet The Morning Chronicle placed the “excellent” Stephen Elmer in its first instalment of comment along with Reynolds, Gainsborough, West, and De Loutherbourg. Elmer had been attracting positive criticism in the press for a few years for his animals and dead game.5 This year, the critic admired a new departure:

In the politician, by placing one hand on Dr Price’s pamphlet, and putting the other on the London Evening Post, he has shown a stronger knowledge of the living manners, than his best friends imagined so able a describer of dead game was master of.6

The painting shows a grey, unshaven, and wigless character, squinting through pince-nez, apparently with some pleasure, at an edition of The London Evening-Post, a journal which, under its radical editor John Almon, had become notable for presenting the views of both sides in the American conflict.7 On the table, a clenched fist rests on a copy of the Reverend Richard Price’s pamphlet Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. This lengthy 1776 work, reissued in seven editions that year, argued that the British principles of civil liberty were not compatible with the current treatment of America, where government should also be based on civil liberty, local control of taxes, and freedom from oppression.8 Price’s stance led to a wave of hostility in the conservative press and in published commentaries, where he was treated as a dangerously seditious fanatic (“the press teems with invectives leveled at the minister” wrote one, similarly hostile, pamphleteer).9

The iconography seems fairly bald—the “Politician” is enjoying the news as presented by The London Evening-Post, while clenching his fist in solidarity with the liberty-seeking Americans supported by Dr Price’s pamphlet. What, precisely, Elmer meant by this painting is still unclear, but as one scholar has pointed out, it seems very unlikely to be intended as a positive representation of an American sympathiser.10

Elmer was a Farnham-based artist whose lucrative speciality was painting the hunting trophies of landed gentlemen. His client base was not radical. He was also a sophisticated interpreter of the Dutch tradition, adapting dead game painting and vanitas to the representation of British animals. He often animated his creatures with character. His walking fowl, and bulging-eyed dogs moving for the kill, all spoke of the Northern European painters that he admired and collected.11

Had the journalist from The Chronicle visited the Society of Arts in recent years, he would have noted that, in fact, Elmer had expanded some time ago into another Dutch tradition—the “tronie”, or expressive head.12 Works included A Fanatic, A Beggar, A Pedlar, and A Miser. The miser, known through a print, creates the character through a grasping gesture, shabby attire, and props—a pile of coins and a book titled Sure Methods of Gaining Wealth.13 Elmer’s depiction of a beggar is similarly exaggerated and posed to embody threatening pathos.14 Our Politician is also a slightly caricatured type: strong expressive features and props create the character, while the ruddy browns and greens, punctuated by strong reds, show the debt to Godfried Schalcken and other Dutch masters.15 Squinting through pince-nez is a common trope in the work of Teniers and Bruegel the elder, relating to the proverb “what use is candle or glasses if the owl won’t see”, and often suggesting delusion, ignorance, or self-deception.16 The Morning Chronicle’s admiration for the representation of “living manners” suggests that they felt Elmer had successfully created a convincing, shabby, The London Evening-Post- and Price-influenced politico.

Yet The Politician has had a strange afterlife. Given Elmer’s mode of creating characters, one might assume that the precise identity of the model was peripheral—perhaps a local Farnham character dressed up as an inflamed enthusiast? The work was exhibited in 1777 as an anonymous Politician, engraved as The Politician by Thomas Ryder in 1782, and sold as The Politician at Elmer’s 1799 posthumous sale. However, in 1815, the figure was captioned as the scientist and diplomat Benjamin Franklin, when used as the frontispiece to a Life and Works of Benjamin Franklin.17 In 1824, a reworked engraving after Ryder was issued as The Politician [Benjamin Franklin].18 Re-inscribed as a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, it has caused more “doubt and speculation” than any other image supposedly representing him.19 Problems with the identification are manifold: it looks unlike Franklin’s other portraits; he is wearing pince-nez rather than his usual spectacles;20 he was not seen in portraiture without his wig prior to leaving London in 1775; Elmer was a provincial dead game painter with no documented connection to Franklin; the portrait surely could not have been made with Franklin’s consent.21

Yet, with all these caveats in mind, it is plausible that Elmer’s unnamed character did share characteristics with Franklin, which perhaps embodied the spirit of the rebellion as conceived in the conservative English public mind. Franklin was the most visible and familiar actor of the American Revolution for the London public, having spent almost twenty years living at Craven Street, until he left London for America in the increasingly hostile atmosphere of 1775. Could his dislike for wigs, his balding pate and long hair (not heretofore captured by his portraitists), his taste for print journalism (as a former publisher), his spectacles, his friendship with Dr Price through the “Honest Whigs” club, even perhaps his use of The London Evening-Post for information, have been the inspiration for this image?22

Elmer was unlikely to have met Franklin but would have known David Martin’s celebrated portrait (the “thumb portrait”) shown at the 1767 Society of Artists exhibition (Fig. 2).23 Martin’s Franklin is the gentlemanly man of science, contemplating literature in his wig and spectacles under the gaze of a bust of Newton. Might we see Elmer’s Politician as the inverse of that portrait: wig removed, hunched enthusiastically (not pensively), squinting through pince-nez (not spectacles), forming a fist over a radical pamphlet (not a scientific one)?24 Could Elmer have been visually encapsulating Franklin’s movement in the public eye, from enlightenment scientist to grinning revolutionary, satirising Martin’s hagiography? Either way, or perhaps because of its suggestive ambiguities, the Politician proved a success for Elmer, spawning commissions for copies,25 the popular 1782 print, and a series of later prints carrying the Franklin identification. It’s a reminder that responses to historical events, before they become historical events, are rarely what we might expect.

  1. For instance the Family of the King of Armenia before Cyrus, 1769, in the Royal Collection, which deals with the wise ruler’s response to an ally not paying their Tribute.↩︎

  2. The Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1777.↩︎

  3. The Morning Post, 1 May 1777.↩︎

  4. This painting is in the collection of the College of Optometrists, London. My warm thanks to their Curator, Neil Handley, who showed me the work and kindly gave me access to their files and an unpublished catalogue entry by Handley and Susannah Avery-Quash in their British Optical Association Museum Catalogue of Oil Paintings Collection, (October 2000, revised 2012), which is hoped will be published in full in the future.↩︎

  5. For example, “These pieces mostly represent dead game, and are executed with great truth and facility,” The London Chronicle, 27 April 1773.↩︎

  6. The Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1777.↩︎

  7. Such as a letter from “An Independent Englishman” who argued for the “liberty, peace and justice” of Americans, and against the military attack on “our brethren”, in the edition published 30 December–3 January 1776. The 1782 engraving of the painting shows a date of 1 January 1776 on The London Evening-Post (not legible in the painting), which could conceivably be a reference to this article, although as the Price pamphlet was published later in 1776, and there wasn’t an edition of The London Evening-Post dated “1st January 1776”, one has to assume that the engraver didn’t have a particular edition in mind.↩︎

  8. Richard Price, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America, 7th edn (London: Printed for Thomas Cadell, 1776). I refer to the seventh edition, which is on↩︎

  9. Remarks on Dr Prices Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, &c (London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1776), 71, there are numerous other quotable rants about Price, who exists in the “very bosom of sedition”. The author of The Honour of Parliament and the Justice of the Nation Vindicated; in a reply to Dr Price’s Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (London: Printed for W. Davis, 1776), called Price an “incendiary abettor” of sedition, 4.↩︎

  10. Charles Sellars, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962), 277–281.↩︎

  11. Elmer’s personal collection of Dutch masters was said to include Rembrandt. Ann Sumner has pointed out the close relationship between Elmer’s dead-game compositions and earlier examples by Jan Weenix and Jan Fyt, Ann Sumner, Stephen Elmer (c1715–1796), Farnhams Famous 18th Century Artist published by Museum of Farnham. Hounds at the Hill, Sotheby London, 29 October 1986 is one example of Elmer’s capability for creating expression in his animals.↩︎

  12. The invention of the “tronie” is usually attributed to Rembrandt, see B.P.J. Broos’s account of the genre in “Rembrandt (Harmensz.) van Rijn”, Oxford Art (accessed 31 January 2017).↩︎

  13. British Museum, 1878, 0713.149↩︎

  14. This signed work, was sold as The Old Sea-Dog, Sotheby 31 October 1990, although the figure’s outstretched upturned hand suggests he could be The Beggar shown at the Society of Authors.↩︎

  15. The influence of Schalcken is also evident in the work of Joseph Wright of Derby and Henry Robert Morland, who were also exhibiting candlelights in the Dutch tradition at the Society of Arts in the 1760s.↩︎

  16. See, for example, the prominent place of pince-nez in Pieter Bruegel the elder’s prints and drawings such as The Artist and The Connoisseur; Everyman; and The Donkey at School, in Manfred Sellink and Nadine M. Orenstein in Nadine M. Orenstein (ed.), Peter Bruegel The Elder: Drawings and Prints (New Haven, CT: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2001). The motif is picked up by Dutch and Flemish artists such as Hendrick Terbruggen, The Gamblers. Many thanks to Lucy Cutler for these references. The College of Optometrists has a remarkable collection of art works on the theme of optics and optometry.↩︎

  17. The Life and Works of Benjamin Franklin (Bungay: Brightly and Childs, 1815).↩︎

  18. The College of Optometrists has impressions of Thomas Ryder’s 1782 print. The 1824 print with the Franklin identification was published by Z. Sweet of London.↩︎

  19. Sellars, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture, 278. Sellars provides the most extensive commentary on the image, although he did not know the Optometrists version, which seems likely to be the 1777 exhibit, Handley and Avery-Quash, Catalogue.↩︎

  20. Surely an indication that the pince-nez are tropic. Franklin was an early user of bifocal lenses, his contribution to their development is elucidated in Handley and Avery-Quash, Catalogue, 4–5.↩︎

  21. Sellars, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture; Handley and Avery-Quash, Catalogue.↩︎

  22. Carla J. Mulford, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 264; George Godwin, Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 244–245. Franklin continued to receive The London Evening-Post, along with other papers, for information after his return to America, see The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, 2 vols (London: Printed for Henry Colburn, 1817), 218.↩︎

  23. Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791, Free Society, 1761–1783: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791, facsimile of 1907 edition, (Bath: Kingsmead Reprints, 1969), 158. The painting was much praised and then in the possession of Sir James Cockbury. There are two versions known, one in the White House, Washington DC, the other in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.↩︎

  24. This possibility was tentatively suggested, among several other possible reference points, by Sellars, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. The fact that Martin and Elmer were co-exhibitors at the Society of Artists in 1767, a fact missed by Sellars, surely makes this the most likely scenario.↩︎

  25. A version signed and dated 1780, was sold at Freemans American Furniture, Decorative and Folk Art Sale 13 April 2011, lot 116. Another version or copy is in the American Embassy in Paris.↩︎

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