Spotlight feature by Freddie Pegram
Hugh Robinson’s Head of a Beggar
The artist Hugh Robinson rests in the crowded margins of art history, one of the unknowable number of cases of “what might have been”.
Born in Malton, Yorkshire, in 1756, he attended the Royal Academy Schools from 1779 and was considered among the most promising artists of his generation. Despite his aspiration to work in the genre of history painting, Robinson’s early career in London primarily saw him working as a portraitist, which was often the most lucrative option for young artists in the period. In 1780, Robinson successfully submitted work to the Royal Academy for the first time. Then, in 1782, he was successful once again when submitting the painting which is the focus of this part of the display: Head of a Beggar (below, left and right).
In 1787, Robinson left England to embark on a tour of Italy lasting ten years. A period studying the masterworks of Europe was an important step forward in the career of any ambitious young artist. Robinson’s travels were sponsored by Sir George Beaumont, a significant patron of British art, along with two other wealthy benefactors. From the high status of his supporters, it is reasonable to infer that much was both hoped for and expected from Robinson.
Then, in 1796, Robinson’s ascendant career was tragically and abruptly cut short. On his return voyage to England, he died of consumption, at just 39 years old. The tragedy of his death was rendered even bleaker when the entire body of work he had produced on the continent—a decade’s worth of labour and thought—was lost at sea. Not only had Robinson sadly perished but much of his artistic legacy had also been extinguished.
The result is that Robinson has remained largely absent from the canonical histories of eighteenth-century British art. There is little known detail about the artist’s life. It is thought possible that, had Robinson’s career not been curtailed, his obvious abilities would have seen him occupy a much larger place in the cultural imagination and in the study of British Art. Martin Postle, Deputy Director of the Paul Mellon Centre and one of the few authorities on Robinson, has proposed that his early work shares stylistic similarities with Joseph Wright of Derby, John Opie, and John Singleton Copley. Robinson’s right to belong in such exalted company is confirmed by a painting which Postle included in his 1998 exhibition, Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th-Century British Art. Titled Boy with a Kite, it is often considered Robinson’s masterwork and attests to his undoubted talent (below).
In the case of Head of a Beggar, though, the influence of another artist is clear. That artist is Rembrandt. Robinson’s painting is an example of the Tronie style of portrait, a popular convention during the Dutch Golden Age. It was one in which artists painted bust-length pictures of anonymous individual or ethnic types, often as a form of self-advertisement. The depiction of an older man in a turban was a common type within the genre and can be seen in Rembrandt’s Bust of an Old Man with a Turban (below).
The character, clothes, and the solemn, unadorned humanity of the sitter owe a clear debt to the Dutch master. Equally, Rembrandt’s formal influence is apparent in the loose but evocative application of paint and the dramatic use of chiaroscuro set in relief against a dark, voided background. If further evidence of Rembrandt’s influence on the young Robinson is needed, another extant work by the latter, his Self-Portrait of circa 1782 provides it (below, left). Comparing Robinson’s self-portrait to Rembrandt’s own Self Portrait at the Age of 34, in the National Gallery, it can be seen that Robinson casts himself as the archetypal Rembrandtian artist (below, right).
In the 1960s, the Head of a Beggar was visited by the misfortune which runs throughout so much of Robinson’s story. The painting was badly damaged in a housefire in Hong Kong, and subsequently repainted. The damage to the picture is still discernible in the scarification on the left side of the canvas, as can be seen in a present-day photograph of the painting (below).
A careful comparison of the 1898 photograph with the painting as it survives today, subtly illuminates what has been lost (below). Though it is difficult to make final judgements in the absence of a high-quality reproduction of the earlier work, it seems reasonable to argue that the finesse and clarity with which Robinson depicted his subject has been blunted. The photograph of the painting in its current state suggests the loss of certain details and touches. The entrenched lines across the man’s face, which communicate the weathering effects of time and experience, seem flattened and smoothed. The beggar’s glassy, haunting eyes look as if they have lost their depth and translucence. The feathered wisps of unkempt facial hair have become rather textureless grey clouds, or have been lost entirely. The result is a portrait of less psychological complexity and emotional force.
It is only thanks to the preservation of the 1898 photograph by the Teesdale family and the subsequent archiving of its facsimile in the PMC’s photographic archive, that we are able to gain some sense of the painting prior to its damage. Equally, The Head of a Beggar allows us to appreciate the limitations of such photographs. The image that is set to be published as part of the PMC’s online photographic archive, and that is being used in this virtual exhibition, is a photograph of a photograph of a photograph of a painting. The restored painting and each reproduction are like the panels of wood which comprised Theseus’ ship. They are at once “inauthentic” and “authentic”, “true” and “untrue” representations of a painting which will never again be what it once was. However, they are still valuable pieces of evidence tracing the history of this artwork and its part in Hugh Robinson’s much-obscured story.
Archival photography cannot produce an exact stand-in for the painting it reproduces. The 1898 reproduction in the PMC archives is over a century old and is unable to offer us substantial information about the painting’s original colour, texture, and materiality. The damage done to the painting itself has prompted the hand of another “artist”, that of the restorer, to refashion and redefine the original, if ever such a thing can be said to exist. All objects, no matter how solid or constant their character may seem, are mutable from the moment their formation begins. When we reconstruct histories from photographic archives or any other form of reproduction, it is therefore imperative that we are always conscious of the gaps we are filling in—and the spaces we are leaving out.