Portraits: British 19th C, Portraits: British 20th C 37 Can anyone identify the sitter or the artist in this portrait of a bearded man wearing a red cloak?

Unknown Portrait of Bearded Man with Red Cloak
Topic: Subject or sitter

This is an unusual picture to be in our collection: little or nothing is known about it, not when it came into the Academy's collection (a volunteer is combing the RCA's minutes in the hope of discovering this), nor why the sitter is wearing such a 'theatrical' cloak, nor the date it was painted. All we can say is that it is oil on canvas, size 59 x 49 cm (sight), unsigned.

Repairs to three tears on the front of the canvas, some retouching to the red cloak, restretching (but not relining) and revarnishing were carried out in 2008. One suggestion is that the sitter might be posing as Othello – such as played by Ira Aldridge – and the face does slightly resemble a late photograph of that actor (in reverse). On the back of the canvas there is a fairly indecipherable maker’s stamp – I shall try a better or different light and submit any results – so far all we can make out is second line ‘Manufacturers’(?), third line, something like ‘11 Rathbone Place’(?), then 'London' on the bottom of the oval mark (mark is approx. 7.5 x 10 cm).

Royal Cambrian Academy of Art, Entry reviewed by Art UK

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37 comments

Lucy Fisher 01,

Ira Aldridge! See later photos of him in a beard. Might almost have been painted from this photo, attached. What lies underneath the green background which is obscuring the right hand side of the face? The red cloak may even be obscuring contemporary clothes! Happy cleaning.

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Many thanks Lucy - yes, that suggestion has been made - and I have tried to upload photos of Aldridge to this site in support of our enquiry but they didn't get there (!). Also the stamp is now deciphered as G Rowney & Co of Rathbone Place....and seems to be from c1860s.

Interesting portrait and if it is Aldridge, it could be quite important. Let's keep in mind Ira Aldridge's lifespan. According to the ODNB, he was probably born in 1807 and died in 1867. He was acting in London and the provinces from 1825 onward. But if the Rowney's label dates from the 1850s/60s, Aldridge would seemingly have been older than the man depicted here. Perhaps a detail of the Rowney label would help.

Kieran Owens,

Marion, would it be possible to upload clear images of the two labels, top left and top right, which are attached to the frame? Is there anything written on what appears to be paper labels on the top left and bottom right of the canvas itself? Excuse me if one of these is the maker's stamp, though that is normally printed on the canvas itself and I cannot see where it is.

Kieran, the collection is following this discussion and should see your request very soon. I have tried enlarging the labels myself but the results are too blurred to be of any help.

I am uploading details of the labels on the back of the stretcher - neither of which is helpful unfortunately - possibly the canvas and frame do not belong together, to judge by the top right hand one which seems to refer to a Welsh landscape subject. I am not sure what the other label refers to, not knowing (as yet) who donated the work to the RCA.

The maker's stamp is on the canvas (upper centre - image attached), and is almost indiscernible at first sight - I tried to process an image of it on my laptop, and ended up with the 'red' image - clearest thing possible without specialist equipment.

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Jacinto Regalado,

I am not convinced this is Aldridge based on his photographs, and I tend to think it is someone else.

Jacinto Regalado,

For some reason this reminds me of Leighton, but that's hardly more than a vague impression.

Kieran Owens,

Here is a rather radical suggestion. Is there any possibility that the painting of "Old Bridge in Ffestiniog", as the top-right label reads, might have been painted over when this discussion's work was created? Could the bequest by "Gwyneth, North Wales" of her Ffestiniog painting to the "Picture Gallery at Plas Mawr, Conway" have been of the old bridge, but the quality of the work deemed it only suitable for destruction and overpainting by one of the subsequent members of the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art?

If there is that possibility, consider the other possibility that this might be a painting of the the 26-year-old Jamaican artist Carl Abrahams by Augustus John, executed some time around or after John met him between March and May 1937 in Jamaica and encouraged him to paint professionally.

http://old.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20050418/news/news5.html

Augustus John was President of the Royal Cambrian Society at Plas Mawr from 1934 until 1939, and the Contemporary Arts Society of Wales was formed in 1937 under his term in office. He would have visited Jamaica half way through this presidency. John was known to have painted over or destroyed work of his own that he did not like. Perhaps he had no qualms overpainting the work of others in the same frustrated outbursts.

It is a wild suggestion, no doubt, and through the simple analysis of brush strokes might be readily dismissed. Experts might consider, for instance, that the face in this discussion's work is painted too finely and does not have that loose and slightly impressionistic feel of many of John's portraits, even though there is something of the Orpen-esque and John-ian background of blocks of paint and energetic colour daubs to be seen here.

I suppose I just do not feel that it is a work that comes from the 1860s.

Gregory Burgess,

https://spartacus-educational.com/SLAaldridge.htm

The above link with photographs suggests to me that this is Ira Aldridge. I note high forehead and shape of his ears. I'd suggest it might not be Othello but possibly Oroonoko (subtitled the Royal Slave) by Aphra Behn . It is known that Aldridge performed the part at the Royal Coburg Theatre (The Old Vic) in 1825 whilst in his late teens.

Howard Jones,

The match up with several of the Ira Aldridge looks convincing. Could this be a later copy of an earlier portrait? The red colouring of the cloak has a very fresh appearance for a portrait from his lifetime.

Referring to the restorer's letter, it says 'most of the cloak has been overpainted to disguise craquelure' (ie on first inspection and before restoration) - but it also says 'the head is...untouched'.

James Fairhead,

I agree with Kieran Owens that the date of this work may be different. The label of the frame indicates that it used to frame “The old bridge at Ffestiniog” (here is a picture of that bridge that is 25 miles from the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llan_Ffestiniog#/media/File:Old_bridge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_353902.jpg ). So the frame, at least, has been recycled and the modern fixing attaching the painting to the frame suggest that this may not have been that long ago. The older labels on the frame and any date that they might indicate are thus probably a red herring, but the new label (by ‘Gwyneth’) may be that of the recent owner of this picture. And yet the frame is also a 'local' frame originally for the bridge, suggesting that the person who used an old frame for the current picture was local when it was reframed.

The sharp colours, green, red and yellow/gold of the man’s costume and background are those of Ethiopia/Abyssinia. This is very unlikely to be coincidental given the powerful use of these colours (and the golden frame). Moreover, the cloak style echoes (or is) ‘Abyssinian’ too. Augustus John was part of the London circle (e.g. of Nancy Cunard) that struggled against racism and supported the Abyssinian cause against Italy in the 1930s. And the Ras Tafari movement, named after the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, emerged in Jamaica as a movement also in the 1930s also when Augustus John visited there. (Epstein had sculpted Selassie) So I wonder if one should look for Ethiopian connection is some way? I wonder, too, about "Gwyneth, North Wales” and whether she might actually be "Gwyneth Johnstone”, the daughter of Augustus John who died as recently as 2010? Maybe this is a much more recent acquisition? Note how this Gwyneth does not sign herself as of a town or village, which would be more usual, but of a region of a country, perhaps alluding to more to her ancestral connection there than to her (Norfolk) address at the time.

Just to inform you that 'Gwyneth' is most probably part of an address, not a named person....Gwynedd (as in the county of Gwynedd), not Gwyneth....Conwy is now in the county of Conwy...confusing, but I think an irrelevance here...

Tim Williams,

I love wild theories, but as an Augustus John mega-nerd, I have to regrettably throw cold water on it. This isn't a John.

Kieran Owens,

I now completely agree that the label directs that the painting should go to the "Picture Gallery, Plas Mawr, Conway, Gwyneth, North Wales". The address appears to be written in biro, so must be a relatively recent accession, possibly post-1940s. That trawl of the records might reveal from whom it came.

Kieran, your very left field suggestion was much appreciated. And we have now established that the frame belonged to a different picture. It would be interesting if the donor of the recently written (20C), in biro, instructions about the donation could be identified.

Martin Hopkinson,

The possibility that this is an early 20th century painting should not be ignored - as indeed some of the contributors above have hinted

Kieran Owens,

Marion or Royal Cambrian , once again I wonder if there anything written on what appear to be paper labels on the top left and bottom right, not of the frame, but of the canvas itself?

Sorry - the 'labels' are not labels but conservator's patches / reinforcements where there were tears in the canvas.

We shall take the picture down again soon and get it out of the frame this time, to see if there's anything else that might help.

Liz Millman ,

I’m from Learning Links International and with the North Wales Jamaica Society, and I know Marian Gwyn and Gareth. I also know Jonathan Greenland who is Director of the Museum of Jamaica and the National Gallery of Jamaica. I can link you with him if you want Lizmillman@yahoo.co.uk

Thank you Liz - I have already alerted Marian via Facebook but would be glad of any additional ideas and contacts.

Kieran Owens,

When you do take the picture out of the frame, do look at the edges of the painting for any possible signs of overpainting.

Kieran Owens,

Haile Selassie, as Emperor of Abyssinia (as it then was), spent a fortnight in Penlle'rgaer, outside Cardiff, in 1939 when he was exiled from his country by Benito Mussolini. Although over 150 miles from Plas Mawr, the painting does not have to have had an association with that latter place, and could have originated anywhere. The specific postal detail of the "Gwyneth" label on this painting suggests that it was being donated from outside the Conway region.

https://bit.ly/2zmENZH

Kieran Owens,

Sorry, I meant to write "outside Swansea" above, and not Cardiff.

James Fairhead,

Given that the canvas stamp on this picture matches one closely from 1847, and in the absence of information that this has been painted over, then I think we should not reject too hastily those who consider this to be a portrait of Ira Aldridge. He often played in Wales (in Swansea, but also perhaps elsewhere), and was certainly in Swansea for 10 nights in 1849, playing Othello and Mungo (Theatrical Journal London Vol. 10, Iss. 508, (Sep 1849): 281-281.). Aldridge also used to wear a heavy red cloak when playing Othello in his younger years. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/simpson-head-of-a-man-ira-frederick-aldridge-n00382 . I have manipulated, slightly, the image that Lucy Fisher sent using a 3D programme to turn the head slightly on the photo to match the portrait pose. If one accepts that the photograph will date from a later time in Adridge’s life, a decade or more later than the portrait (and so has lost some hair, perhaps gained some weight and has slightly baggier eyes), then this match seems very good to me (eyebrows, eyes, nose match well - though I must admit that on past record I don't seem to be very good picture comparison!).

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Kieran Owens,

Does the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art have a pre-2008-restoration photographic image of this painting? It would be interesting to see exactly what state is was in and how much of the work was actually retouched.

It would indeed be interesting to see such a photographic record - unhappily we do not have such an image, but I will contact the restorer to check if she has anything - thanks for the prompt Kieran.

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