Lot 11: SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS P.R.A. 1723-1792
Important British Pictures
November 27, 2003
London, United Kingdom
oil on canvas, in a carved wood frame
half length, wearing a black dress and lace shawl, with a cream bonnet, and grey gloves, her left arm leaning on a pedestal
This beautiful portrait of the young Mary Hickey was painted by Reynolds in 1773. The sitter was the eldest daughter of Joseph Hickey, a close friend of the artist. Hickey also acted as Reynolds's attorney, and almost certainly commissioned the picture. Reynolds painted a number of his close friends in the early 1770s, and these portraits have a natural relaxed air, no doubt encouraged by the fact that the artist could eschew the grand manner and did not have to concern himself with the sitter's station in life and how they might wish to appear. He clearly felt at ease painting Mary Hickey, whose family were old friends and this contributes greatly to the natural elegance of the pose.
Mary Hickey came from an old Irish family. Her grandfather Lawrence Hickey came from Cashel, and her father Joseph studied in Dublin before coming to London to study law. Much of the information on the family comes from Mary's brother, the celebrated diarist William Hickey (fig.1), whose memoirs so vividly portray his decadent early life and his subsequent career in India. William Hickey began his memoirs with a brief note on his family history and writes: "my father was the youngest son of a numerous family, all Irish, sprung from a very ancient and honourable stock". Joseph Hickey married Sarah Boulton, daughter of William Boulton who came from an old Yorkshire family. As his practice grew he acquired a 'handsome country house at Twickenham', next door to Thomas Hudson and close to Pope's house and with a fine prospect of Richmond Hill and park. He acted as lawyer both for Reynolds and for his fellow Irishman Edmund Burke and executed the conveyance of the land at Richmond where Reynolds's house was built, next to the "Star and Garter", and to designs by Sir William Chambers. Reynolds painted him in 1772, probably for his friend Edmund Burke, and this portrait, now untraced, was exhibited that year at the Royal Academy. Hickey was popular and convivial, described by Tom Taylor as 'a plain, hearty, jovial man, of no great polish, or pretension to culture' (in Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1863, Vol.I, p.264). He was also part of Oliver Goldsmith's circle and the poet referred to him in Retaliation:
"Here Hickey reclines, a most blunt pleasant creature,
And slander itself must allow him good nature;
He cherished his friend, and he relished a bumper,
Yet one fault he had, and that was a thumper.
Perhaps you may ask if the man was a miser,
I answer, No, no; for he always was wiser.
Too courteous, perhaps or obligingly flat?
His very worst foe can't accuse him of that.
Perhaps he confided in men as they go,
And so was too foolishly honest? - Ah no!
Then what was his failing? Come tell it, and burn ye -
He was - could he help it? - a special attorney."
Little biographical information is known about Mary Hickey. She lived at 14 Argyll Street in London and was joined there later by her father when he sold his other properties. According to her brother William, she had 'great taste in the arrangement of dinners', and she was clearly her brother's favourite. He sent her his portrait by Thomas Hickey from Lisbon on his way to India, and when she died in October 1795 he wrote: 'a more affectionate and warm-hearted sister no man ever had, and most truly did I grieve at her death' (Memoirs, edited by Alfred Spencer, 1925, Vol. IV, p.128). He must have appreciated the fact that she was prepared to tolerate his childish pranks. On one occasion she even appeared to condone them. In his Memoirs, Hickey described an occasion when his sister was going with friends to a masquerade ball at the Opera House. As was often the case, Hickey was drunk - 'upon my ringing the bell to desire that a domino and mask might be sent for, my sister observed she could supply me with a suitable character for the state I was in and, going up to her own apartment, soon returned with a complete dress of white linen, being garments worn at a particular convent in Paris'.
There are a number of appointments recorded for 'Miss Hickey' in the artist's sitters books and, as some are at unusual times, it seems unlikely that all of them relate to the painting of a portrait. This portrait appears to have been painted in August 1773 when six appointments are recorded - on the 7th (at 1pm), on the 9th, 11th and 13th (at noon), on the 14th (at 11am) and a cancelled one on the 18th (at noon). The Ledgers for December 1773 record payment of 35 guineas. Other appointments are in 1769, 1771, 1777, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1784 and David Mannings suggests that she could have worked for Reynolds as a model. A second version, first recorded as in the collection of Leverton Harris in 1920, is now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
Graves and Cronin list the picture as being painted for Edmund Burke. This supposition came about as it belonged in the early nineteenth century to Thomas Haviland Burke, whose mother Julia was Burke's sister, and who took the additional name of Burke on his mother's death in 1816. As Joseph Hickey was Burke's lawyer, it was assumed that Burke had commissioned the picture and then left it to his nephew. Sir Ellis Waterhouse pointed out that it was in fact inherited by T.H. Burke from the sitter's father.
The year 1773, when this portrait was painted, was a very busy and fruitful period for the artist. He exhibited thirteen pictures at the Royal Academy, considerably more than in any of the years since its foundation in 1769. Amongst these were two of his most celebrated portraits, Sir Joseph Banks (National Portrait Gallery) and Mr and Mrs Garrick (National Portrait Gallery), as well as A Strawberry Girl (Wallace Collection), one of his most successful 'fancy' pictures, and a celebrated history picture Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (Knole). Amongst other pictures completed that year were two of his best self-portraits (Royal Academy and Althorp). The portrait of Mary Hickey fits in with a number of portraits from the early 1770s of his close friends or of famous actresses with which it shares a quality of naturalness and an avoidance of the grand manner. Amongst the close friends painted in this period are Guiseppe Baretti (1773 - Private Collection), Oliver Goldsmith (c.1770 - Knole), Dr Johnson (c.1772 - Tate Gallery) and Caleb Whitefoord (1773 - Private Collection). It was also during this period that he painted several portraits of the beautiful actress Mrs Abington. The finest of these, Mrs Abington as Miss Pru (fig.2) (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) was bought from Saltram by Lord Hillingdon in 1877.
Reynolds has painted Mary Hickey in the height of fashion and took unusual care with the meticulous painting of her elegant gloves, black silk shawl and wide-brimmed white satin hat. The portrait is particularly striking in its use of the contre jour effect with the brim of the hat producing a lovely soft shadow over her eyes. Reynolds used this effect quite sparingly in his portraits but usually very effectively. The best known example is his portrait of the courtesan Nelly O'Brien painted in 1762 (Wallace Collection). Other examples are the portraits of Catherine Chambers, wife of Reynolds's friend William Chambers, the celebrated architect (1756 - Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood) and of Lavinia Countess Spencer (1785 - Althorp). Perhaps his first use of this effective motif was in his early self-portrait of 1747 when he depicts himself shading his eyes with his left hand. His inspiration for this was probably one of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
Presumably painted for Joseph Hickey and bequeathed to Thomas Haviland Burke (1795-1852);
Probably with John Heugh by 1872;
Sir Charles Mills, Bt., later Lord Hillingdon, 1877 and thence by family descent
Dimensions: 73.5 by 60.5 cm., 29 by 23 3/4 in.
British Institution, 1833, no.11 (lent by T.H. Burke);
Probably Royal Academy, Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters, 1872, no.105 (as 'Portrait of a Young Lady - painted for Mr Edmund Burke', lent by John Heugh);
Grosvenor Galleries, Works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, 1883, no.147 (lent by Sir Charles Mills)
C.R. Leslie and T. Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1865, Vol.I, p.347; Vol.II, p.55;
Catalogue of the Furniture, Porcelain, Pictures & c. at Camelford House, Park Lane, The Town Residence of Lord Hillingdon, compiled 1891, privately printed, p.42 (in the Red Drawing Room);
A. Graves & W.V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Vol. II, 1899-1901, p.465;
Sir Walter Armstrong, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1900, p.212;
E.K. Waterhouse, Reynolds, 1941, p.63;
David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2000, Text Volume, no.903 (with confused provenance), Plates Volume, no.1081