New approaches to British portraits at The Fitzwilliam Museum by Amy Marquis

Susannah Wedgwood, mother of Charles Darwin, by Peter Paillou the younger, 1793 © The Fitzwilliam Museum

Susannah Wedgwood, mother of Charles Darwin, by Peter Paillou the younger, 1793 © The Fitzwilliam Museum

Amy Marquis,  Study Room Supervisor (Paintings, Drawings and Prints), The Fitzwilliam Museum, received a Bursary from Understanding British Portraits in October 2012. Here she reflects on the aims of her chosen project.

The Fitzwilliam Museum‘s collection, like all collections, is constantly changing, whether this be through high profile acquisitions like our recent successful appeal to save Nicolas Poussin’s Extreme Unction for the nation, or through other means. The Fitzwilliam is the first museum I have worked in and it was not until joining that I was able to fully appreciate the significance of working with a collection and how that affects the way one engages with its objects. This means that when new objects arrive, in addition to their independent significance, they present new opportunities, and provide new ways for the public to engage with our collections.

We are about to receive (it was expected to arrive last year but has taken a little longer) on loan, a self-portrait by the miniaturist John Smart (c.1741-1811). The V&A, of course, has a wonderful self-portrait of the artist (P.11-1940) on display in their portrait miniatures gallery. The Fitzwilliam already has several works by Smart, but no self-portrait. Usually in private hands, its loan to the museum is a great opportunity to study this miniature. It will go on public display in the spring and the aim of my project is to link it to certain other portraits in our collection of British art, looking at how they portray various types of intimacy. My project includes the study of other portrait miniatures (particularly our recently acquired portrait, Susannah Wedgwood, mother of Charles Darwin, 1793, by Peter Paillou), but is not limited to them.

I am looking at the function of these portraits and how different types of relationships are revealed and memorialised in them, from the creation of a likeness to preservation of a memory. I wonder to what extent we should see Smart’s likeness as a proxy. Comparing it with other works seems useful when dealing with questions such as this. I recently had a thought-provoking discussion with Katie Coombs at the V&A. What I found most striking was the question of why portrait miniaturists started to paint on ivory despite it being such an unsuitable support? Smart hides it completely under layers of densely built up paint. I don’t expect to answer this question in the course of my project but I tend to think that, in the competitive world of portrait miniatures, the exoticism and luxury of ivory might have appealed to miniaturists for just these reasons, ahead of any artistic considerations.

Running the Study Room at the Fitzwilliam means I usually facilitate other people’s research so the Understanding British Portraits bursary is a great opportunity to do some research of my own. Next month I will be able to spend more time investigating Peter Paillou, an artist of whom we know relatively little although the miniature itself, Susannah Wedgwood, mother of Charles Darwin, has a fascinating history.

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