Engraved: John Lodge (fl 1782-1796)
Thomas Worlidge was born in Peterborough, the son of Richard Worlidge, a lawyer. He received his earliest artistic training from the Genoese émigré Alessandro Grimaldi and from the engraver Louis-Philippe Boitard. His enthusiasm for the work of Rembrandt, which was shared by a number of influential artists and collectors in mid-eighteenth-century England, became a dominant force in his life and work. This can most obviously be seen in his own engraved works but can also be detected in some of the lighting effects in his oil portraits.
In the present painting, the sitter’s coat is subtly lit from an unseen source, high up and to the left. A more diffused light softens the features, while the shaded half of the gentleman’s face is almost silhouetted against a source of reflected cool light from behind. A delicate feigned oval just encroaches and the sitter almost seems to rest his elbow on the edge with a slight turn of the head and body to prevent it from being a mere profile; this simplicity of approach to the composition is enlivened by strokes of the brush to highlight flashes of light on the edges of the coat buttons, the scarf and most importantly the eyes. This absorbing interest with chiaroscuro and the effects of light sources was, no doubt, indebted to the old master works of Rembrandt, the effects of which Worlidge experimented with further in his engravings, which were highly praised and sold very well, remaining consistently popular after his death.
Despite this success with etchings Worlidge consistently styled himself ‘painter’ and probably always earned his living by portraiture, even though few paintings by him are now known; the status of a painter perhaps having greater appeal to the public in Bath rather than printmaker. While he always kept a London address, generally in the Covent Garden area, and moved into Thomas Hudson’s old house in Great Queen Street in 1763, Worlidge visited Bath almost every year. Like Gainsborough, he came to a captive fashionable clientele during the winter social season. A small full-length portrait drawing of Beau Nash, Bath’s master of ceremonies, dated 1736 (Royal Collection), suggests an early association with the town, and his marriage on 12 June 1743 to Mary Wickstead of Bath, a needlework artist, cemented the link. They had nine children, some of whom were baptized in London and others in Bath.
It is testimony to the enduring intellectual appeal of Thomas Worlidge that even during the artist’s most forgotten period at the beginning of the 20th century, this portrait was in the private collection of one of the keenest philanthropists and art collectors in America, Frank C. Ball (1857-1943).