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John Hamilton Mortimer sketch in the John Sunderland archive

by Martin Postle

  • 23 Jan 2020

Among the research materials in the John Sunderland archive is a slight pen and ink study of an old man’s head in profile, attributed here to John Hamilton Mortimer, who, in addition to his more polished studies, produced numerous impromptu sketches of this kind. There are no clues to the early history of the sketch, which bears an inscription in pencil by a later hand: ‘Hamilton, the Celebrated Painter at Brocket Hall and Royal Palaces’. ‘Hamilton’ clearly refers to John Hamilton Mortimer rather than the sitter, while ‘Brocket Hall’ adverts to the series of decorative paintings for the ceiling of the Saloon at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, commissioned from Mortimer by Lord Melbourne in 1770.

Pen and ink portrait study of an old man in side profile.

John Hamilton Mortimer, pen and ink study of George White, John Sunderland archive (JNS/1/11/34)

The subject of the drawing is the head of an old man, viewed in profile. Unlike the majority of Mortimer’s drawings of this kind, the present sketch would appear to be more akin to a portrait rather than a study for an historical or mythological character. The sitter, with his hook nose, prominent jaw, and grizzled beard, can be identified with confidence as George White, among the most celebrated artist’s model of the period. ‘Old George’, as he was known, was first discovered by the surgeon, John Hunter, around 1770, when he admitted as a patient to St George’s Hospital, London. Despite his age and gnarled features, White was, according to Hunter the finest anatomical specimen he had ever seen, his strong limbs developed through his labours as a street paviour.

On Hunter’s recommendation, White was taken up by Joshua Reynolds, who used him in a series of character studies and as the principal protagonist of his history painting, Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon, of 1773.  White was soon employed by other artists, including Benjamin West, Johan Zoffany, and John Russell. He also worked as a model in the Royal Academy Schools, where he received a retainer of five shillings a week, plus a shilling for each session. Among the students who studied him there was the sculptor, john Bacon, who made a profile study of his head, similar to Mortimer’s.  White is also recognisable as the model in a number of Mortimer’s historical compositions, notably his etching of a bandit entitled ‘Reposo’, one of fifteen prints dedicated to Reynolds and published in 1778.

Although White gained recognition as a model, William Hunter eventually ejected him from his house due to his irregular habits. He may have returned to his native York, where he was accustomed to spend the winter, commenting ‘coals be cheap in the north, and warmth be the life of an old man’.

Further literature:

Martin Postle, ‘Pathos Personified’, Country Life, 30 June 1988, pp. 204–5.
Martin Postle, ‘Patriarchs, prophets and paviours: Reynolds’s images of old age’, Burlington Magazine, October 1988, No. 1027, vol. 130, pp.735–44.

The above drawing is part of the archive collection of art historian, John Sunderland, at the Paul Mellon Centre archives. Sunderland wrote the catalogue raisonné of the works of John Hamilton Mortimer, and this archive collects his research papers on the artist, as well as material created by previous Mortimer scholars, Gilbert Benthall and Benedict Nicolson. There are also some files pertaining to Sunderland’s other research interests in British eighteenth-century art. To see what else is in this collection, please consult the catalogue here. If you wish to browse our other available collections, please follow the link to all our available catalogues. For any further queries you may have about our archives, or to make an appointment to consult them, please contact us at collections@paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk.

About the author

  • Deputy Director for Grants & Publications at the Paul Mellon Centre