Programs & Exhibitions

"Portraits of Painters: Drawings by George Vertue and Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England"

The exhibition included drawings by Vertue as well as the related prints published in volumes of Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting.

Portraits of Painters:
Drawings by George Vertue and Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England

The thirty-four portrait drawings by George Vertue (1684 – 1756) depicting English painters now in the collection of the Lewis Walpole Library were purchased by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis in 1949. These drawings once formed part of a collection of 470 prints and drawings in two folio volumes from the library of Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797). Walpole acquired many of these portraits from the artist's widow in 1758 and subsequently augmented the collection with additional prints and drawings.

In addition to the portraits, Walpole also acquired Vertue's manuscripts or "Notebooks," numbering nearly forty volumes, which recorded accounts of the lives of English painters and constituted a major resource for Walpole's own history of art, Anecdotes of Painting in England; with some account of the principal artists; and incidental notes on other arts; collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; and now digested and published from his original Mss. Walpole began work on the five-volume Anecdotes of Painting in 1759 and published it at his Strawberry Hill Press between 1762 and 1771. He stated that the "chief business" of this work "must be to celebrate the arts of a country which has produced so few good artists." His narrative, nevertheless, also reveals something of his views on the nature and proper pursuits for artists in England: he commemorated portraiture as a distinctly national genre and frequently promoted the merit of art produced by amateurs over that produced by academic professionals. His presentation of the history of English art as a series of anecdotes highlighted the importance he placed on individual biography.

Following Vertue's lead as well as that of Giorgio Vasari, the famed sixteenth-century biographer of Italian artists, Walpole valued portraits as embellishments to his text on the lives of painters. He employed several printmakers (Alexander Bannerman, Thomas Chambars, Charles Grignion, John Miller, and Anthony Walker) to engrave portrait plates, principally after Vertue's drawings, as illustrations to Anecdotes of Painting.

Indicative of his appropriation of Vertue's collection and legacy, Walpole supplied the volumes of drawings he originally acquired from Vertue with titlepages, printed at his own Strawberry Hill Press (1771-1773), which identified the collection as "Portraits of Painters, Engravers, Sculptors, &c. from Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England." As evidence of this provenance, many of these portrait drawings have annotations by Vertue, Walpole, or both. Most are signed with Vertue's monogram, "V.G.," which is often reinforced in ink, probably by Walpole.

Both Vertue's "Notebooks" and Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting remain important resources for the study of the arts in Britain.

To view the exhibition brochure click here.

Selected Sources:

Brownell, Morris. The Prime Minister of Taste. A Portrait of Horace Walpole. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.

A Catalogue of the classic contents of Strawberry Hill collected by Horace Walpole. London: Smith and Robins, 1842. [London Sale: no. 1270]

Griffiths, Antony. "Walpole's Collection of Portraits." Print Quarterly 17: 3 (September 2000): 290-3.

Hazen, Allen T. A Catalogue of Horace Walpole's Library. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968. [No. 3664.]

________. A bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press with a record of the prices at which copies have been sold, including a new supplement, by Allen Tracy Hazen, together with a bibliography and census of the Detached Pieces by A.T. Hazen and J.P. Kirby. Folkestone, England: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1973. [Detached Pieces: No. 54.]

"Vertue Note Books," The Walpole Society Journal 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 30 (1929-1950). Reprinted by Wm. Dawson & Sons, 1968.

Walpole, Horace. Anecdotes of Painting. in The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford. vol. 3. London: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson, 1798.

________. A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex. in The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford. vol. 2. London: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson, 1798. [p. 446.]