Handel in paint; Thomas Hudson’s portrait of William Peere Williams at Dreweatt’s this afternoon

This stunning Hudson has just sold at Dreweatt’s of Donnington with a £700 – £1,000 estimate.

Hudson Portrait of Peere Williams the younger c.1740

(c) Dreweatt’s

An estimate like that used to be given to any bog-standard head-and-shoulders of a man in a  wig by an unknown artist, so it was a surprise seeing it given to such a magnificent – and fully attributed – Thomas Hudson. Ten years ago, you would’ve expected to pay at least five and possibly eight for a picture as fine as this. Is this what the British Eighteenth Century has come to? I thought.

I listened in to the sale, and happily you could sense the buzz down the wire. Bidding started up like fireworks, first in the room, and again when it seemed to die down before being taken up by one phone after another. The hammer went down at £7,200. Thank God for that. That’s a proper price for a whistles-and-bells Hudson like this. I’d love this detail as a painting on its own.

Blog Hudson detail (Dreweatts)

(c) Dreweatt’s

Look at the way the hand is done. Absolutely stunning. And the still-life of the books and bundles of old cases tied with red legal tape.The gilt carved table he’s resting on – Hudson’s sitter is too well-bred to lean – is a terrifically lively piece of painting. Hudson rarely includes still-life details in his portraits, but when he does the result is stunning. The skull in his earliest-known painting, the portrait of his wife Mary Richardson as the Magdalene c.1725,

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or the canvas that the sitter leans on in what may be Hudson’s greatest painting, the portrait of the drapery painter Joseph Van Aken c.1745 (with Lowell Libson Ltd) show that still-life painting was an exercise he enjoyed, and was supremely good at.

Hudson_-_Van_Aaken_S1034_682_800_70_faf9f5_s

(c) Lowell Libson

So I wish them well, whoever paid a proper price for this beautiful picture. It deserves it. The frame is perfect for it too.

Dreweatts Hudson framed

(c) Dreweatt’s

Looking at this portrait, you can imagine yourself in Hudson’s painting-room in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in about 1740. It’s a piece of solemn dignity, order and proportion with great depth of feeling. Represented by the books which his son has lovingly published, Peer William’s Sr occupies the right-half of the portrait like a second sitter. It’s like the stately chiaroscuro of my favourite Sarabande, written mid-decade before by Handel, whose operas packed out the Theatre round the corner from Hudson, night after night. This picture is like hearing an echo of it from another room.

The sitter must be William Peere Williams Jr, the barrister who published his his father’s Law Reports in two volumes in 1740. A third volume was published in 1749, which bookends the sitting to Hudson, and suggests an earlier date. William Peere Williams Sr was a highly successful barrister and MP, who retired the equivalent of a millionaire. Reynolds’s portrait of his youngest son George James ‘Gilly’ Williams, wit and letter-writer with his friends George Selwyn and Lord Edgecumbe in the Library at Strawberry Hill (Private Collection), has a strong family resemblance to the Hudson sitter.

Much of the Dreweatt’s sale is stock being offloaded by Mallett’s, for decades the home of this sort of solidly respectable, smart Eighteenth Century portrait. I thought it was a worrying sign if they’re moving on to new things, so I’m glad that there’s still a keen market for a picture like this. The next lot was an Arthur Devis of Lord Robert Kerr, keen amateur flute-player, who bought the score of Vivaldi’s Grand Mogul Concerto from the composer himself. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in his papers in 2010. Lord Robert sat to Devis in 1742, and was killed in the first charge at Culloden three years later. He took the first of the Camerons on the point of his pike and was cut down at once by the next. I hope he finds a good home too.

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