Portraits of Nobility and the Grand Manner Take Center Stage at BADA

Three people viewing 18th century portraits A selection of portraits from the Philip de Laszlo Archive Trust (installation view at BADA 2019).

Each year, the BADA (British Antique Dealers’ Association) art fair — held on London’s prestigious Duke of York Square — plays host to one hundred of the world’s leading specialists in art and antiques along with a loan exhibition, commemorating or highlighting a figure or collection of note. This year’s loan exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Hungarian-born British national, Philip de László (1869-1937).

De László was a portrait painter of significant international reputation, and following in the footsteps of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), he is best recognized for his portraits of nobility in the Grand Manner style. As with Reynolds, who painted “anyone who was anyone in late eighteenth century Britain,” according to The Telegraph’s Michael Prodger, it was asked of de László, “has any one painter ever before painted so many interesting and historical personages?” It was arguably thanks to their dedication to documenting both celebrity and nobility, that both Reynolds and his successor de László surpassed their modest roots to become some of the celebrated painters of their times, amassing significant wealth and social status.

What is the Grand Manner?

Also known as the “Great Style,” the Grand Manner was a term used by artists and collectors to refer to works bearing visual cues that signified the wealth or class of the sitter. The exact period in which the Grand Manner is thought to have been in practice is debated, with some suggestions that the style was practiced from around 1650 until the early twentieth century. Many credit Sir Joshua Reynolds as the inventor of the style, which he used a means to raise portraiture to a high art. The artists who practiced the Grand Manner studied the Old Masters and emulated their portraiture style. The hallmarks of Grand Manner portraiture are many and varied, although the ultimate aim was to depict the sitter as learned and intelligent following the Age of Enlightenment. Many of the portraits on view at BADA 2019 bear elements of the style, which include those outlined below.

Noble Sitters

The aim of the Grand Manner style is to depict sitters as Enlightened, educated and, ultimately, sophisticated. The most common sitters in such portraits are therefore upper classes and nobility, although as they are commonly depicted as gods, goddesses, or other mythical or historical characters, closer knowledge of the sitter may be required.

A selection of portraits from Strachan Fine Art

A selection of portraits from Strachan Fine Art.

Classical or Allegorical References

Early Grand Manner painting included historical, allegorical or religious scenes. However one of the style’s most celebrated proponents, Sir Joshua Reynolds, applied tropes of the style to portraiture, making for a new form of high art portraiture. An example of such an allegorical reference on show at BADA 2019 is Queen Iseult, by William Stott of Oldham, an historical scene in which the figure’s posture is suggestive of to the “pudica” (modest) pose made famous by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli in the iconic work, “The Birth of Venus.”

“Queen Iseult” by William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), presented by Ottocentro.

“Queen Iseult” by William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), presented by Ottocentro.

Large-Scale Paintings

Grand Manner portraiture is frequently life-sized in its proportions, and often includes a full-length figure, making for portraits of grand scale as well as manner. One such example at BADA 2019 is at The Parker Gallery, whose full-sized portrait of Baron Williams by Henry Thomson occupies an entire wall. The Baron also makes a commanding hand gesture, suggestive of classical portraiture (known as Adlocutio). This iconic gesture is a fixture of paintings of notable leaders throughout art history, including Jacques Louis David’s (1748–1825) well-known portrait of Napoleon at the Great St. Bernard.

“Portrait of Baron Williams” by Henry Thomson RA (1773-1843), presented by The Parker Gallery.

“Portrait of Baron Williams” by Henry Thomson RA (1773-1843), presented by The Parker Gallery.

Idealized Landscapes

In a portrait of Lady Lake (Joyce Crowther 1744–1834) by Francis Cotes (1726–1770) — presented by Strachan Fine Art — Lady Lake is presented against a bucolic backdrop and depicted as Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. Lady Lake has a dog by her side, another recurring motif in Grand Manner portraits. Similarly, Christopher Buck Antiques presents a portrait of Hortense Manchini (1646-1699) by an unknown painter, in which she is depicted against idealized rolling hills.

In many cases, the grand manner in which its proponents painted was largely employed for commissioned portraits of nobility, while they would reserve more unique styles for their personal practice. For example, many of John Singer Sargent’s portraits bear the hallmarks of the Grand Manner style, while his personal work has more in common with the Impressionists of his era. It may be for this reason that the Grand Manner is one of the less discussed art movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries although it counts among its practitioners Thomas Gainsborough, John Hopner, Thomas Lawrence, John Russell, and George Romney.