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"Original Portrait of Turner by J. Gilbert"

Gilbert, Sir John, English painter (1817-1897) - attributed. Portrait of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), unsigned but initialled by Turner in pencil.

[London, likely 1837 or soon after].

Pencil and grey wash drawing on cardboard. 218 x 163 mm. Includes a wood-engraved reproduction of the drawing, clipped from "John Cassell's Art Treasures Exhibition" (1858).

The probably best-known portrait of J. M. W. Turner, who was famously reticent about having any likeness of himself drawn, showing the great landscape painter before an unmarked canvas on an easel, brush and palette in hand, a large paint rag protruding from his tailcoat pocket. The oft-reproduced image was captured by the twenty-year old John Gilbert at the British Institution in 1837, when he was first exhibiting his own works. More than four decades later, Gilbert recalled in a letter to George Scharf, director of the National Portrait Gallery, how he had then spotted the famous artist at work on a painting opposite one of his own, and seized on his opportunity, "making a hurried pencil sketch. From that sketch I made a drawing on wood, which was well engraved by W. J. Linton [...] I have from time to time searched diligently for the pencil drawing made in the gallery, but unsuccessfully. Whether someone laid unlawful hands on it I know not; at all events, it has long since disappeared. My sketch was very slight [... but] has been copied over and over again and engraved" (quoted in Cust, p. 248f.). Gilbert's original sketch, which he considered lost, is now in the Courtauld Gallery (D.1952.RW.2947), acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Witt in 1952. Yet the present, unsigned copy bears an inscription on the reverse identifying it as an "Original Portrait of Turner by J. Gilbert" (a pencil note which appears to have been traced in ink at a somewhat later date). It is further recommended by the fact that it bears the pencilled initials of Turner himself, unquestionably in the artist's own hand, which establishes it at least as a contemporaneous copy seen and endorsed by the sitter - unless one were to entertain the fantastical notion that it was made and thus signed by Turner himself. The portrait is almost exactly the same size as the drawing at the Courtauld, more roughly executed than the large pencil copy made by "F. J. Meyer" (or "Meyrick"?) and acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1983 (NPG 5566), and would seem to pre-date Linton's wood-engraving (D39436) as well as the large lithograph (D39437) which the NPG dates to 1846.

Traces of former mounting on the reverse, a short tear to the lower right margin, but finely preserved. Provenance: from the collection of Leonard Lyell, 1st Baron Lyell (1850-1926), which included possessions of Henry and Charles Lyell as well as Katharine Murray Horner and correspondence by Turner with the Rogers and Moore families.

Cf. Lionel Cust, "The Portraits of Turner" in: The Magazine of Art 18 (1895), pp. 245-251.