Following his apprenticeship under Jonathan Richardson in London, George Knapton worked in Rome from 1725 to 1732 where he also pursued his archaeological interests publishing a report on the excavations in Herculaneum in 1740. He was a founding member of the Society of Dilettanti, the dining club for English gentlemen returning from the Grand Tour of Italy, portraying its 23 members in lively poses and fancy costumes, from 1741 to 1749. Having previously catalogued the Royal Collection he was appointed Surveyor and keeper of the King’s Pictures in 1765.
In the middle of the 20th century when owned by the American collectors Edwin & Emily Johnston the portrait was attributed to Allan Ramsey. In more recent times Francis Hayman has been suggested but refuted, for obvious reasons, by Hayman scholar Brian Allen. Possibly because it fails to conform to the mainstream approach of many of Knapton’s other oils these misattributions have occurred and, therefore, like the portrait of Edward Morrison (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) it represents a work in the artist’s oeuvre which is both different, yet underlying similar, to his other known works.
Knapton was a gifted pastellist and his familiarity with this medium is reflected in this portrait which shows a softness of form and texture together with a delicate handling of colour. This can be seen in some of his other oils, for example the portrait of Lucy Ebberton (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London) and Mary Thronkmorton (Private Collection), a portrait that displays a distinct roundness to the arms and hands that compares favorably to the treatment in this portrait. The complete portrait further echoes his earlier works in pastel of children such as Master William Napier (Christies, November, 1991). The treatment of the head, while not necessarily typical, nevertheless betrays all the attributes of Knapton’s distinct approach; the rounded cheeks; pronounced lips; sharp reflection in the eye and an underlying liveliness of character that we see throughout his child portraits. The method and manner of applying the paint also compares very well to a sketch attributed to Knapton by Sir Oliver Millar (Head of Lord Digby after Van Dyke, Sherbourne Castle), with the face overall showing the distinct influence of his teacher Jonathan Richardson. Indeed, this portrait in many respects echoes those produced by Richardson of his son in pencil (Victoria & Albert Museum) and oil (Christies, 2006); compositionally similar with their heads directed to the right and their eyes focused towards the viewer; with the facial expression and attributes, such as his chin and full lips; with the resemblance in the arrangement of the hair. The pronounced influence of his earlier master is all too apparent.
The portrait is known to depict a member of the Hope family and was in the Johnston collection as such. Allan Ramsey depicted members of the Hopes of Hopetoun in Scotland and this is probably where the earlier misattribution of Ramsey as the artist stems from. It possibly could represent a child member of this large family but impossible to say with any certainty with no further information available.