The Dignity of Work part II: a rare portrait attributed at last.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about this portrait of a farm labourer.

Portrait of Solomon, farm labourer

There is an old label on the back, with the name Solomon Brig[stock?] and the date 1777 or 1779. I speculated about the commission

Who was it painted for and why? Clearly the artist is a competent provincial painter, who would have made his living by painting portrait commissions

but I never expected to find out who the artist was. I couldn’t even be certain that Solomon was the sitter rather than the painter. I just had a feeling that this was the sitter’s  name rather than the artist’s.

Just after I wrote the piece I found this portrait online when I was researching eighteenth century uniform. It shows one of the Duke of Dorset’s footmen at Knole. The full painting shows him facing a profile portrait of a lady’s maid. It’s a very beautiful portrait. It jumped out at me, and the handling reminded me of Solomon’s portrait. But it is a more virtuoso exercise. It was tantalising to compare them, but inconclusive.

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Knole (c) Lord Sackville, image from Austenonly

The Knole painting is attributed though, to the itinerant ‘Mr Almond’ who painted the Duke of Dorset’s staff at Knole in 1783. Arnold Almond is known only from this commission, and the Knole paintings are his only recorded work.

Knole belongs to the National Trust, but Almond’s paintings are in Lord Sackville’s private collection, and so they do not appear on the National Trust Collection website. There are images of them in the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery, however, and I was blown away by what I found there.

As these images show, the characterisation, and the handling of details like the locks of hair and the costume is exactly the same as in my portrait.

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Francis Yates, Second Groom 1783

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Mary Wells, Housemaid 1783 images (c) Vine Digital

This 2011 article by John Morrison in Vine Magazine gives a vivid picture of the lives of the staff at Knole and the background to this remarkable commission. Taken together they are a breathtaking set. This image from BBC2’s Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs shows the presenter Dr Pamela Cox standing in front of them.

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(c) BBC, image from Smith and Gosling.

There is no doubt in my mind that Solomon’s portrait is also the work of Arnold Almond. The quality that made it so different from other servant portraits of the period – a dignified study of individual character rather than a picture of a man at work – is apparent in each one of the Knole paintings. They really are very exciting. Almond gives us a unique, sympathetic and very modern record of people who would not ordinarily be immortalised in the eighteenth century. As John Morrison says, ‘He was no Reynolds, but some of his portraits are strikingly lifelike.’

So where then did my portrait come from? Almond also painted portraits of the outdoor staff in 1783, but these are no longer in the collection. Solomon’s portrait is dated a few years earlier, if the label is correct, but it must relate to this or a very similar commission. Further research is needed, but Solomon’s portrait is an important addition to Mr Almond’s work, and may date his career several years before the Knole commission.

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