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NPG Acquires Major Portrait by Thomas Lawrence

Arts feature

A PORTRAIT of the greatest English actor of the early 19th century by the greatest English portrait painter of his generation will find its permanent home in the National Portrait Gallery, in the heart of London’s theatre district, thanks to a sale negotiated by Joseph Friedman, an independent fine art agent and consultant.

The portrait of John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) by Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830) was the last of four full-length portraits of the actor painted by Lawrence, who considered it to be his best.

It was exhibited by the artist to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1812, the year it was completed, and later displayed for several years in Lawrence’s own house in London. Contemporaries also regarded the portrait as Lawrence’s best likeness of the actor, a view shared by leading experts today. Its importance was recognised by the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) which granted it pre-eminent heritage status.

John Philip Kemble as Cato has been acquired for a net price of £178,500 after tax concessions by Private Treaty Sale through Joseph Friedman Ltd acting on behalf of Mr John Philips of The Heath House, Staffordshire. It was purchased with help from Gift Aid Visitor ticket donations, Gallery supporters and a grant of £55,000 from The Art Fund, the UK’s largest independent art charity.

The portrait, which will be among the highlights of the forthcoming Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, joins two others on public view in London: Kemble as Hamlet at Tate Britain and Kemble as Coriolanus at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

In this portrait, the great actor is depicted as Cato in Joseph Addison’s play staged in 1811 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The play reached its climax in the first scene of the final act when Kemble, seated alone, intoned the famous soliloquy on death and the immortality of the soul. This is the moment captured by Lawrence in this penetrating study.

The drama and intensity of the actor’s gaze are heightened by the stark simplicity of the setting and the powerful contrast between the brilliant white of the tunic and the dark green drapery. The seated pose, used to powerful dramatic effect, is unusual in full-length portraits by Lawrence and rare in a theatrical portrait.

The portrait was commissioned by Charles John Gardiner (1782-1829), 2nd Viscount Mountjoy, later 1st Earl of Blessington. Although it hung in Blessington’s London house for some time, he loaned it back to the artist for him to make a copy (now in the Garrick Club). It was only returned to Blessington’s executors after Lawrence’s death.

The painting was acquired in the early 1830s by John Burton Philips, and has remained in the same family until now, hanging for almost 200 years in the dining room of The Heath House in Staffordshire, being removed only once for exhibition. When Joseph Friedman was invited by the owner to advise on its possible sale, he immediately recognised its importance to the nation.

The owner, John Philips, whose family built the house and have owned the estate for some 500 years, was determined that the picture should go to a public collection and was delighted that Friedman was able to negotiate its sale to the nation’s pre-eminent public portrait collection. This caps a series of heritage sales negotiated by Joseph Friedman to the British Library, the National Gallery and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 10am to 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm).

Late Opening: Thursday and Fridays from 10am to 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm).

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE

Recorded information: 020 7312 2463

General information: 020 7306 0055