The other day I was looking someone up in the C’s of the Heinz Archive at the NPG. By chance I came across an image of this portrait of Dr Samuel Clarke (1675 – 1729).
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London
Samuel Clarke is not such a name to conjure with these days. In fact I hadn’t really heard of him. Which is embarrassing, because Clarke was terrifically important in his day, and for at least a century after his death he was recognised across Europe as a great philosopher. As an undergraduate at Caius College, Cambridge he was famous as a polymath, and as one of the few people who actually understood Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia.
Newton became a great friend and Clarke defend Newton’s Principles against attacks from the German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz, who argued that Newton’s science squeezed God out of the equation. Clarke used mathematics to prove the existence of God, but his argument for a supreme One disproved the Trinity, and the Divinity of Christ, and after a brief controversy he promised not to say anything further about the subject.
Queen Caroline – a friend and correspondent of Leibniz before she came to England in 1714 – appreciated Clarke’s combination of intellectual depth – he wrote French and Latin translations in addition to his philosophy – and moral groundedness. Clarke believed in actions rather than words. ‘God every where declares,’ he wrote: ‘that he prefers Works of Righteousness before Sacrifices and the exactest Performance of all positive Laws and outward Ceremonies.’ (DNB citing Clarke’s ‘Works’)
Caroline wanted him to become a bishop – even getting the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole to ask – but Clarke declined because of his stumbling block with the Trinity. This must have been a relief to Walpole. He was furiously jealous of anyone but himself having influence with the Queen, and later on he would blame his arch-rival Lady Sundon for having surrounded Caroline with dangerous free-thinkers like Clarke when really Caroline chose her circle herself, and very carefully.
Caroline, her daughter-in-law Augusta Princess of Wales and her daughter-in-law Queen Charlotte are the subject of an exhibition at Kensington Palace from June 22nd to November 12th this year, Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World. These three women shaped the intellectual, artistic and moral climate of the reigns of King George II and George III, and an exhibition like this is long overdue. I’m looking forward to it. Caroline’s role as patron is described in Joanna Marschner’s exciting-looking Queen Caroline, Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth-century Court which I think I shall save up for.
But back to Samuel Clarke. The NPG portrait is catalogued as by an unknown artist c.1720. The late John Ingamells notes in Later Stuart Portraits (NPG 2010) that George Vertue recorded seeing a portrait by ‘Zeeman… now in the Vestry Room St James’s Parish.’ (p.48). Clarke spent his last years as Vicar of St James’s, Piccadilly. The full-length portrait hanging there, certainly by the Nineteenth Century, was a full-length by Thomas Gibson. Gibson’s portrait was destroyed when St James’s was bombed in October 1940, but there is a copy at Caius College, which shows it was quite different to the NPG portrait, and certainly by Gibson.
I’d be surprised if Vertue mistook a Gibson for a Seeman. He knew both painters well, and Gibson had taught Vertue when he was a student at Kneller’s Academy. So I can’t explain this apparent substitution of one painting for another between the early Eighteenth Century when Vertue was writing, and the early Nineteenth when the Caius copy was painted.
Nevertheless, Enoch Seeman was the name that jumped out at me straightaway when I saw the NPG image, and I still wonder if there’s a good chance that the NPG full-length is by him. The NPG’s three-quarter length of Newton is attributed to Seeman’s studio, and it feels so comparable in characterisation and handling.
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, Studio of Enoch Seeman c.1726 (c) NPG
Vertue’s account feels like reliable evidence that a Seeman-type of Clarke existed, and this might well be a version of it. I will ask the NPG is there’s any likelihood of this. The provenance of their painting is unknown before 1868 when it was sold from an anonymous collection (Christie’s July 4th 1868 lot 131 as Hogarth).