John Clarke went up to Christ’s College Cambridge in 1783 taking his degree in 1787. He was ordained as a deacon in June 1788 and a priest a year later – at the same time he became curate at West Hallam and then Derby St. Peter. Drawn towards rural Derbyshire he went on to become stipendiary curate at Kirk Langley by 1814 and vicar of Weston upon Trent in 1819, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.
John Downman was a pupil of Benjamin West, before becoming part of the first intake of students at the Royal Academy in 1769. In 1773–5 he visited Italy with Joseph Wright and on his return he set himself up as a portrait painter in Cambridge. By 1779, he had returned to London and was gaining a reputation as one of the most fashionable portraitists of the day. He was patronised by the royal family, as well as such figures as the Duchess of Devonshire and the Duchess of Richmond. His success depended partly on his speed of work and from the 1780s he relinquished oils in favour of a distinctive technique that enabled him to produce portraits in great quantity, using black chalk lightly tinted with watercolour.
The work presented here is a fine example of Downman’s skills working in oil and using copper as a support, thus enriching the image with a smooth clarity. Given the age of the sitter and the painterly technique it was probably completed during the artist’s time in Cambridge early in his career.