All paintings have a story behind them; this one is a remarkable snapshot of Thomas Hudson’s early career – and maybe his relationship with his master, and father-in-law, Jonathan Richardson. It was a sleeper in an Irish auction last year, catalogued as French School, portrait of a Bacchant. It is in fact Thomas Hudson’s St Mary Magdalen, the artist’s earliest known work, untraced since it was sold from the artist’s posthumous sale in 1785 and known only from an engraving.
At first glance it looks like the work of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646 – 1723) and the model has a look of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough (1660 – 1744). The painting is very close compositionally to Kneller’s portrait of his daughter Catherine Voss as St Agnes (Paul mellon Collection of British Art, Yale, formerly with Philip Mould and Co.) Hudson need not have seen the original, but he must have been familiar with John Smith’s engraving (NPG).
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London
There’s a lighter feel to the Magdalen that you get with Kneller, and the Chelsea porcelain feel anticipates the rococo. The composition was engraved by John Faber as Sta Maria Magdalena with an inscription attributing the painting to Thomas Hudson (1701 – 1779). Faber’s address is ‘at the Green Door in ye Great Piazza Covent Garden,’ where Faber lived from 1727 to 1729. The print shows that the surviving painting – measuring 40 x 30 inches – has been trimmed by about five inches on each side, from what must original have been a standard 50 x 40 inch canvas.
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London
Someone, incidentally, has written ‘Dutchss of Marlborough’ in pencil on the NPG copy of the print, so at least one later Georgian punter was struck by the similarity, but Hudson’s Magdalen is clearly too young to be a woman in her sixties as the Duchess was by this date. Kneller’s Duchess of Marlborough must have been the ideal of beauty for that generation, and afterwards – proof of the huge influence painter and patron had on their times.
John Smith after Sir Godfrey Kneller, the Duchess of Marlborough c.1705
Dr Ellen G Miles, the Hudson expert, places Faber’s engraving at the beginning of her catalogue for the 1979 Thomas Hudson exhibition at Kenwood as the only record of the artist’s earliest known work, painted around the time of his marriage to Mary Richardson (1700 – 1769), daughter of Hudson’s master, the famous portraitist and art-theorist Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745). Dr Miles says that the composition ‘is unique in Hudson’s work in that it appears not to be a portrait.’
‘However, the subject matter of the penitent Mary Magdalene, together with the fact that Hudson had recently married Richardson’s daughter Mary, without her father’s consent, suggests that this image may perhaps be a portrait of Mary Richardson soon after her marriage to Hudson.’ (Thomas Hudson , Kenwood 1979 cat 2).
Dr Miles goes on to say that ‘A Magdalene’ was lot 15 in Hudson’s posthumous sale (Christie’s 26th February 1785). This makes it very much a living picture – a painting of the artist’s wife, which he kept with him all his life. And, as she suggests, it is also intriguing evidence of the Hudson’s early relationship with his father-in-law. George Vertue covers this period in Hudson’s career very briefly:
‘Mr Hudson Painter of Portraits learnt of Mr Richardson. his portraits drawn good likeness, firm lines composition or actions of his pictures, very well disposed with natural variety, in that I think he has the Advantage of his Master whose daughter he Married without the father’s consent – But -.’ (Notebooks III Walpole Society XXVII p.66)
We do not know exactly when Thomas and Mary were married, but their first child, Anne Elizabeth (1725 – 1737), was born on October 3rd 1725, which sets a date of New Year 1725, give or take.
So was the picture really intended as an elaborate visual apology to Richardson for marrying his daughter without consent? There is quite a lot for any father-in-law to swallow here, let alone the leading member of Britain’s Art Establishment. The exposed breast would be quite shocking for a start. In seventeenth century portraits, bare breasts appear only in portraits of mistresses. By the 1720s, the date of our painting, excepts on nymphs and goddesses, bare breasts had become so rare that this picture is the only example I can think of. It wasn’t even an essential attribute for a Magdalen; Mary Beale‘s Magdalen (Philip Mould and Co) was painted far more demurely forty years before. And even with the most modest drapery in the world, would a father really be glad to see his daughter as a saint repenting her past life as a prostitute?
Kneller painted two Magdalen subjects in the 1690s – one with Philip Mould and Co., and the other known from an engraving, and a studio version formerly with Philip Mould – and these are believed to be portraits of his daughter Catherine Voss. Again, the drapery is far more modest. Perhaps the closest we get to Mrs Hudson’s décolletage is this Magdalen by Balthasar Denner (1685 – 1749), a German painter working in London 1725 – 1729. Denner’s Magdalen was painted about a decade before Hudson’s. Denner was an artistic celebrity and his finely detailed paintings sold for vast sums. Hudson need not necessarily have known about this example, but clearly the subject was current for the previous generation of artists. I wonder if the Magdalen had some extra resonance for painters and their families that I’m missing here. Something to explore. Perhaps there was an (unconscious?) echo of the pre-Pauline Magdalen, a woman of great honour as the wife of Christ.
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum
It seems that in Protestant British Art, the Magdalene could be read as an image of melancholy – real or put-on – without any hint of a racy former life. John Evelyn, one of the most upright men in England, describes sitting for ‘my picture (the same wherein is a Deaths head)’ [Diary July 1st 1648]. This portrait, now in the NPG, is basically a male Magdalene turned into an allegory of philosophy.
(c) National Portrait Gallery
Hudson’s picture does seem to be the last example of this Baroque genre in British painting. So what exactly was he doing here? On one level it is a very personal painting of a woman he loved. And it is, undeniably, a bit of artistic page-three thinly veiled by a religious subject. But so was Titian’s Magdalene. And that may be the key. The painting is a flashy piece of brilliance by a young artist, aimed at people who would spot the sources – the Magdalene’s iconography, her cave and skull and book borrowed from Continental painting, her pose taken from the Medici Venus. Virtuosi would admire the way that Hudson has reinterpreted them in the style of Kneller’s portrait school to produce a modern, truly English Old Master painting. Put like this, it is not so far from what Hudson’s pupil Sir Joshua Reynolds would be doing forty years later.
And it is a great show-off of a painting. The zig-zag of gestures leads the eye down the picture from head to breast to skull, underlining the solemn message. The rock ledge that the Magdalene is resting on, and the edge of her book thrust out of the picture plane set the figure in a plausible physical space. The evenness of the rock ledge hints at the table Mrs Hudson must have been leaning on in the studio. The broadly brushed skull is a superb piece of still-life painting, so solid and tangible you could wrap your hand round it. This aggressive, illusionistic three-dimensionality rarely appears in Hudson’s later work, tho his portrait of George Frideric Handel 1747 (University Library Hamburg) repeats the motif of the bound folio almost identically, showing that it was an effect he was particularly proud of.
I have to say I was thrilled to be able to pick the painting up. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to turn round and look over my shoulder at the only painting to survive from the earliest part of Hudson’s career, and the only work – as I will go into another time – which might enable us to put together an oeuvre for Hudson from this first decade of his career.
Who knows how well the Magdalene worked in patching things up in the Richardson/Hudson family. Presumably everyone was on speaking terms again by the time the painting was published as a print c.1727. Perhaps Hudson even persuaded Richardson to see the funny side; he must have admired Hudson’s skill in painting it.
Richardson’s original reason for being against the marriage is unknown. He may have wanted a more eminent husband for his daughter than an apprentice painter; that was certainly the reason Sir James Thornhill hit the roof when his daughter Jane married William Hogarth in 1729. It is stylistically possible that Hudson’s Magdalene was painted very early in his time at Richardson’s studio, possibly before his marriage, which might not have helped Richardson’s temper. In time Richardson clearly came to respect his son-in-law. Our evidence for Hudson’s early appearance is a beautiful portrait drawing by Richardson (British Museum) that he kept in his collection, and Hudson became Richardson’s artistic heir, inheriting his practice when Richardson retired in 1740. Hudson’s mature portrait style is so close to Richardson’s that his sitters sometimes look almost indistinguishable from his master’s – with the key difference that they sometimes seem to be suppressing a smile.
Jonathan Richardson, Anne Countess of Winchelsea c.1726 (c) NPG
Thomas Hudson, Elizabeth Lady Isham c.1735, Lamport Hall.