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Fame and Fortune in Fine Portraits

A portrait by an artist - or a photograph - means that someone thinks you’re worthy of it... even if it is only yourself-ie. Photographs can be reminders of where we have been and what we have done and are often used for this purpose, but photographic portraits vary completely in style from unplanned and often ill-timed photographs. More often than not, the stiff, poised image is not a good likeness of the person or their personality - unless the artist was observant and skillful. Just as photography requires skill, sensitivity and empathy to provide a true likeness and convey the personality of the subject, portrait painters need similar skills.

Previous to the invention of the camera, portraits were sketched and painted - usually as oil paintings. If sufficiently important, the painting was also engraved in reverse from a mirror image so that it could be printed for publication and circulation. Portraits reveal the era of the subject in the clothes that are worn, and can also show the status of the individual - as with these beautiful hand-coloured steel engravings of aristocratic English ladies from the mid-19th century (These engravings are from paintings by Sir Peter Lely.)...
or an engraving of an inventor (J.F.W. Herschel), explorer (James Cook), composer (Handel), cartographer (Petrus Bertius), royalty, and other famous public figures of all shapes, sizes and periods:


What is most interesting, is the style of the artist or engraver in showing the personality of the individual. Of all the portrait artists I particularly like the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Francesco Bartolozzi’s stipple engravings from Holbein’s drawings. Fine examples in good condition are hard to find these days, but the quality of work is still exceptional and eminently collectable.

Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543), was one of the greatest 16th century portrait artists. Born in Augsburg, Germany, to a family of artists, he most likely trained with his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, before going to Basel, Switzerland with his artist brother Ambrosius. From the time of his first major portrait (of Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus in 1523), young Hans showed sensitivity and perceptive observation of his subjects.

When the importance of Protestantism brought riots and strict censorship to Switzerland, Holbein travelled to London with a letter of introduction from Erasmus. He worked for English stateman and author Sir Thomas More, and although only 30 years old, his portraits were impressive with fine detail. In 1528 Holbein returned to his wife and children in Basel, but returned to London in 1533. He began painting portraits at the court of Henry VIII, but was not appointed court artist until four years later. It is estimated that during his last 10 years, Hans Holbein the Younger painted around 150 portraits.


Italian artist Francesco Bartolozzi R.A. (1727-1815) was born in Florence, worked in Venice and Rome, and moved to London in 1764. He was a foundation member of the Royal Academy in London in 1768, and was appointed ‘Historical Engraver to his Majesty’ (George III). Bartolozzi subtly echoes the style of Holbein’s drawings, and perfected the technique of stipple engraving with his copperplates for Imitations of Original Drawings by Hans Holbein, in the collection of His Majesty, for the portraits of illustrious persons of the court of Henry VIII.  Bartolozzi’s superb engravings of Holbein’s portraits were published in London between 1792 and 1800 by T. Chamberlaine, a Fellow of the Society of Artists, who was appointed the new Keeper of Drawings and Medals to the King in 1791. Bartolozzi’s engravings were considered so important that they were reissued through to 1811. Most of the paper has a 1794 watermark and, as with many antique prints, the date of publication usually appears at the base. Some impressions were made on India paper with corners mounted onto the page. Some of the engravings have pale colour enhancement, and others were printed on pink-toned paper.

The original grand book of Holbein’s drawings was ‘rediscovered’ in a bureau in Kensington Palace in 1727 by George II’s wife, Caroline of Ansbach, who framed and hung them at her favourite residence, Richmond Lodge. They have since been returned to Kensington Palace. Unlike Holbein’s drawings and his grand paintings in British galleries, Bartolozzi’s beautiful engravings were available to everyone. The folio-sized publication of Bartolozzi’s engravings was reissued in 1823; and at the Prince Regent’s suggestion, a smaller quarto edition issued in 1812.

There are of course many other beautiful portraits by other artists. I am progressively adding them to the website - in between many other requests... If you are looking for someone specific, please ask. Email Kathryn at or phone 0412 442 283.


Posted: 30/03/2018 5:56:33 PM by | with 0 comments

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