In my earlier post “A Victorian Fencing Master: or, can you help me identify this painting?” I sought help on an attribution for this painting:
A couple of people were kind enough to read the blog and tell me that they thought the subject probably was the fencing master Henry Angelo and were more confident than I was that the sketch of him in the National Portrait Gallery was consistent with the portrait.
But James Mulraine (who is an expert in identifying portraits – see his excellent website here) went one better and pointed me to the fact that C.R. Leslie had exhibited a portrait of Henry Angelo at the Royal Academy in 1843.
There is a lesson (or two) to be learnt here. One thing I had done was check the Royal Academy Exhibition listings – you can find them online – but my first mistake was to, stupidly, start looking from 1845 because I’d become fixated on that date. (This sometimes happens in police inquiries where one supposedly “known” fact derails or distracts the investigation.) But James was of course right and there in the RA Exhibition catalogue for 1843 is this entry:
No. 179 Portrait of Henry Angelo Esq. C.R. Leslie, R.A.
Now I had never considered C.R. Leslie as a possible contender for the artist, first because I have barely heard of him and second because the one thing I did know was that he painted literary scenes from Shakespeare. I didn’t have him down therefore as a portrait painter: my second mistake.
Before I turn to the Leslie’s biography I should say that a reference to a RA Exhibition listing wouldn’t be enough to convince me this was the same painting. But the RA annual exhibition, then as now, was an event. People commented on it, reviewed it, criticised and gossiped about it and 1843 was no exception. In “The Art-Union: A Monthly Journal of Fine Arts”, there is a review of the 1843 RA show which comments on individual exhibits. No 179 gets a not entirely favourable mention:
I probably agree with the criticism that the work is “kept” (as in controlled or in good condition) apart from the head, however I ignored the “too great prevalence of cold tints” because the exciting thing is that the description exactly matches the painting. The one thing that had always been a problem in linking this painting to other artists – the fact that for a three-quarter length portrait it is quite small at only 60cm tall – turns out to be a helpful identifier.
The identification with Leslie as the artist is also consistent with the T. Brown suppliers mark on the back of the canvas. Leslie is listed as one of the artists who used Brown’s canvases; his self-portrait in the NPG is one example. My third mistake.
I’ll come to my fourth mistake in a minute but first a brief mention of the life and career of C.R. Leslie.
Charles Robert Leslie was born in London in 1794 to American parents. From time to time people try to claim him as an American artist and although he spent his childhood in Philadelphia he seems to have considered his home as England. He arrives in London aged 17 to attend the Royal Academy schools were he wins various prizes. He is known for cabinet pictures or representations of literary scenes, much like David Wilkie’s. (As James Mulraine also points out; in a print of Leslie’s painting “Charles Dickens as Captain Bobadil” in the V&A there is a very prominent and detailed sword).
I hadn’t however realised that he also produced a number of formal portraits which he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. He became ARA in 1821 and a full RA in 1826. He is also quite a distinguished author having published a book on Reynolds (which I have – so that probably counts as mistake no. 5) and in 1843, the year of our painting, his “Memoirs of the Life of John Constable” which is still a valuable source on the artist. He also publishes (posthumously) his own “Autobiographical Recollections” in 1860.
In 1833 he left England to return to America to become a teacher at the US military academy at West Point. This may seem surprising that a military academy would have a drawing teacher but anyone who has read about the life of James McNeill Whistler will know he attended the academy where drawing was considered important, albeit because it related to map making and battlefield reports. There is a further connection between Leslie and Whistler because later, back in London, the young Whistler attended Leslie’s lectures on art at the Royal Academy. I know this because not long ago I read Daniel E. Sutherland’s book “Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake” where the lectures, published in The Athenaeum magazine, are mentioned. Had I read all the footnotes to that book I would have spotted that a quote from Leslie about “the great and unceasing” difficulty facing artists came from a letter he wrote to one Henry Angelo, Esq. on 4th February 1848. That letter is now in the archive of the Art Institute of Chicago (Box .FF 6.49). So I had on my bookshelf, just yards from the painting, a link between the artist and Henry Angelo. That was my fourth mistake.
I could mention some other errors: I failed to notice that there are two editions of Henry Angelo Snr’s book of Reminiscences. The edition I hadn’t looked at has an engraving of Henry Snr (from a portrait by W Childe) which has a striking family resemblance to his son.
So, thanks to a very helpful tip-off and the magic that is the internet, I have managed to fill in the key details of the painting that hangs in my hall. There are still some things I want to do – follow up on correspondence for example – but I feel confident that I can now label this picture: