Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C, Yorkshire, The Humber and North East England: Artists and Subjects 33 Is this a work by Joshua Reynolds? Is the sitter the renowned surgeon Percivall Pott?

Topic: Other

Provenance: This painting is part of Newcastle University's Pybus Collection. Professor Frederick Charles Pybus (1883–1975) amassed a collection of items (including paintings, books and artefacts) relating to the history of medicine. This painting was purchased from Sotheby’s on the 15th of May 1960 LOT 204. An extract from the sale catalogue is attached to the stretcher and reads: ‘SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS, P.R.A. /204. PORTRAIT OF P. POTT, ESQ., the surgeon, half-length, wearing blue costume, white lace cravat and cuffs, seated at a desk./29¼ in by 24¼ in./The subject gave his name to Pott’s fracture.’ There is no indication of provenance.

The painting is not, as far as can be ascertained, in Cotton’s list of Reynolds’ sitters compiled from his pocket books* and it is not recognised in David Mannings’ Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, Yale University Press, 2000.

*NB: Reynolds is known to have painted Pott in 1784, as that painting is listed in Cotton in italics, but not the date of the sitting, which seems to indicate that the painting is known but the sitting is also unrecorded in the pocketbooks.

The Sitter: Percivall Pott (also Percival Pott: 1713–1788) was a renowned surgeon of his time. In 1729 he became master of anatomy to the newly formed Corporation of Surgeons, going on to be master of the corporation in 1765. In 1749 he became a surgeon to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. In 1756 he suffered a compound fracture of his leg (still known as Pott’s fracture), and rather than the then common practice of amputation had the leg successfully realigned. He resigned the office of surgeon in 1787. From spinal disease to TB to cancer, Pott had significant influence. His works were collected in 1775.

Reynolds painted Pott in 1784, the work is in the collection of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Archive: Another known work is by George Romney (from 1788) in the Hunterian Museum, London: The Hunterian also hold a painting of Pott (1783 or before) by Nathaniel Dance-Holland:

These paintings do not bear a strong resemblance to this discussion's painting which has led to queries being raised over the identity of the sitter. Another suggestion is that, stylistically, this work is close to Reynolds’ style of the 1750s so this is a much earlier representation of Pott, perhaps marking his becoming the surgeon to St Bartholomew’s or Master of the Corporation of Surgeons.

The stretcher: In addition to the Sotheby’s catalogue extract, the stretcher of the painting has a handwritten label with ‘P.POTT (1714/1788) / (POTT’S FRACTURE SURGEON) / By Sir Joshua Reynolds 1758 (?).’ There is also a faded black, handwritten inscription which seems to say “Dr Pott M.D / Joshua Reynolds” in the style of Reynolds’ handwriting/signature. Unfortunately, some of the wood near the signature is damaged making it difficult to read and photograph, also at some point someone has leant on the stretcher while writing a label and the indentations make the signature difficult to photograph. [Group leader: Bendor Grosvenor]

Newcastle University, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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Jacinto Regalado,

The wig and dress should be addressed for dating by someone like Lou Taylor. This could be earlier than 1750s.

Ian Welland,

I don't accept this is a Reynolds. I believe William Hoare of Bath may be a contender as artist? It is certainly more Hoare than Reynolds.

Kieran Owens,

Could a hi-res of the black mark on the bottom right corner (as viewed) of the letter by posted?

Whaley Turco,

At first glance it's either a Reynolds or someone in his circle copying his paint experiments. The Ghostly pallor is a dead give away. A Proper Inspection or in this case an Investigation of the Paint would either confirm or deny. I'm surprised nobody has done this. On first glance it's a REYNOLDS. On second Glance too. The Style and the Draftsmanship are first rate, there's not a hair out of place. To Me the only way this isn't a REYNOLDS, is if it is proved to be a Forgery. Which it might well be.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

The collarless coat and waistcoat, the deep cuffs and the plain style of the wig would indicate a date between c.1735–1740 for this portrait, the dark blue, plain velvet suit indicating a professional man rather than a fashionable man. See close similarity to attachment 1, portrait by Hogarth, of George Arnold, Esq. of Ashby Lodge dated to 1738–1740, Fitzwilliam Museum.

See also details (attached) of two older men from The Du Cane and Boehm Family Group, 1734-5 by Gawen Hamilton, Tate T07505.

Miles Barton,

It would also be very useful to have close-ups of the face and perhaps the back of the painting with the inscription.

It is a struggle to match the physiognomy to those known representations of Pott, even though this is an earlier portrait. I suppose it can't be ruled out of hand that it is Pott but perhaps just by a less competant artist.
Renolds by the 1750s was producing much better work than this. The only way it can be considered to be by him is if we believe that it was painted in the early 1740s and then the pose becomes problematical for a Reynolds of that date. I'm wondering whether it could be an early work by Robert Edge Pine. The ghostly Pallor Whaley mentions is a curious feature though.

Jacinto Regalado,

Pott was 27 in 1740. This sitter looks rather older than that. I do not believe this is by Reynolds, and the Reynolds pallor is not the same as this picture's; it tends to look more unnatural.

Betty Elzea,

Marcie: The painting in the background of the Paye self-portrait is not the portrait of Pott which is under discussion, if you look closely.

Marcie Doran,

I agree, Betty. I was just adding to the list in the introduction of known images of Pott.

Alison Cross,

The portraits of Pott on line look fairly like each other, including the other Reynolds, but this one doesn't look like any of them. Different wig style, the modelling of the nose and under-eye area look different. It may be a Reynolds, but don't think that it's Pott.

Osmund Bullock,

Marcie, the portrait of Pott in the background of Paye’s self-portrait, and of which he is making an engraving, is the fuller, three-quarter length version (or a perhaps a copy of it, given its small size) of Nathaniel Dance’s portrait of c.1783. I don’t know if the painting survives, but there is a copy of Paye’s print at the BM here: The Hunterian’s half-length version ( looks very oddly cropped on Art UK – that cannot be an image of a 75 x 62 cm canvas. See attached composite.

However, I fully agree that on both facial appearance and age grounds, our portrait cannot possibly be Percivall Pott. Moreover the inscription on the stretcher (which was certainly not written/signed by Joshua Reynolds) is at best a later addition. Note that it appears to be titled ‘Dr(?) Pott M.D.’ – but Pott was a surgeon, not a physician, and I can find no instance of him being referred to as ‘Dr’ or ‘M.D.’ in his lifetime or indeed afterwards (though oddly the Royal College of Surgeons today accords him a knighthood which he never had). This is no surprise: it was not until the end of the 18th century that it became normal for surgeons to have medical degrees – their training was generally by way of an apprenticeship, and it is as an historical nod to this that surgeons today are still called ‘Mr’ not ‘Dr’. This is hardly a mistake that would have been made in a contemporary inscription, let alone one by the artist.

My suspicion is that ‘Pott’ was a misreading (perhaps wilful) of a barely-legible name, and it was then doctored somewhat to read that more convincingly – see attached image, tweaked a little. A quick scan of Munk’s Roll of Physicians ( produces a couple of possibilities (there may be others), but I think they’d both be too young if the picture does date from 1740 or earlier – John Thomas Batt (c.1718–1762) and George Raitt (sometimes spelt Rait, ?1719–1785). Probably not worth researching further, as even if the sitter *was* a physician, the chances are he wasn’t one of any particular note. I’m afraid I think Professor Pybus was sold a pup.

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Jacinto Regalado,

What does Bendor Grosvenor think about the Reynolds attribution?

Jacinto Regalado,

Osmund, to find out whether or not someone was knighted in the UK, is there some standard reference that can be consulted online?

Osmund Bullock,

Yes, there is indeed such a work, Jacinto - and actually I'm very grateful to you for reminding me of it. William Shaw's two-volume 'The Knights of England' (pub. 1906) is a "... Complete Record from the Earliest Time to the Present Day [in fact to the end of 1904] of the Knights of all the Orders of Chivalry in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of Knights Bachelors". Knights bachelor are knights created outside one of the more prestigious specific orders of chivalry - the commonest sort, both currently and historically.

The first volume lists the knights of each chivalric order in turn by date of knighthood: The second volume lists the knights bachelor in the same way: Most importantly, though, Vol. II has at the back an overall alphabetical index of all the knights of every type and date to which you go first, and it will send you to the right volume and page for more details.

After 1904 you have to look to other sources - Who's Who/Who Was Who, for example, if you have access to it online; or the official London Gazette, which publishes notices of conferred titles, honours and decorations, and is searchable online:

Miles Barton,

I agree with what you said Jacinto in reply to my message on 7/01/2022.
I believe with what others have said also we can agree that it just isn't of Pott and neither is it by Reynolds.

Bendor Grosvenor,

I think to make a decent go at the attribution we'd need some better images. But given we know what a Reynolds of Pott looks like, at St Barts, I think it's unlikely to be either here.

Jacob Simon,

This discussion flourished for a few weeks after launch in 2022 and the went quiet, perhaps because, as Miles Barton posted (17/01/2022), "we can agree that it just isn't of Pott and neither is it by Reynolds."

I propose to check in the NPG archive and then see if we can reach closure on this discussion.

Marcie Doran,

I wasn't able to find anyone who resembled this man, other than 'John Herring' in the portrait at the link. I'm not suggesting that the unknown man is John Herring.

The hand and quill pen are quite similar to those in the portrait by Reynolds 'Robert Dodsley' at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

I tried to determine what 'our' sitter had written but could only clearly see the letter 'R'.

Newcastle University,

Thank you for your helpful comments. We are planning to undertake cleaning/conservation work on this portrait which will enable us to get some clearer photographs taken.

Jacob Simon,

HISTORY. In my post yesterday I said that I would check the NPG archive. It provides some information but not a solution. The picture appeared at Sotheby’s, 20 April 1932, lot 67, as a portrait of Dr Pott by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The attribution to Reynolds was crossed through in the sale catalogue by a member of NPG staff at the time. The portrait formed part of the sale of the property of J.W. Willis Bund deceased of Wick Episcopi, Worcester. He has an entry in Wikipedia but this and an entry on the Bund Willis family do not provide easy wins though a possible avenue for further research. There were several Bund family portraits in the sale.

The portrait reappeared at Sotheby’s on 18 May 1960 as lot 204, again given to Sir Joshua Reynolds but the attribution was marked by NPG staff with a double? The sitter was described as “very possibly rightly named, not a version of a known Reynolds”.

THE DATE. Lou has understandably drawn comparisons to portraits of the late 1730s (07/01/2022). However, our man has the conservative style of wig worn by some medical and legal professionals into the following decades, such as in Reynolds’ 1761 portrait of William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, see attachment. And there are portraits of the 1750s with collarless coats and deep cuffs as an examination of portraits by William Hoare on the NPG website confirms.

THE SITTER. Dr Pott’s appearance in our portrait does not fit comfortably with his later portraits by Romney, Dance and Reynolds. Yet the identification is traditional and I would hesitate to dismiss it out of hand.

THE ARTIST. NPG staff who saw the portrait in the sale room in 1932 and 1960 doubted the attribution to Reynolds. Yet there is something very Reynoldsian about our portrait and it is not easy to suggest an alternative artist. The portrait is not included in the late David Mannings’ catalogue of Reynolds’ work. Mannings does not feature a list of rejected portraits so it is unclear whether he considered our portrait - unless the collection has information.

For a detail of the head of our portrait, see the post by David Saywell (07/01/2022). Some parts of the face and wig are thin, perhaps explaining the lack of liveliness in the features. I suspect that the portrait was cleaned and lined in the 19th century. The stretcher inscription, “Dr(?) Pott M.D.” may date to this lining, by which time the idea that Pott was an M.D. becomes more understandable (see Osmund’s post, 11/01/2022).

THE WAY FORWARD. I think it is worth keeping this discussion open for the time being. The history, date, sitter and artist all warrant further thought.

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Jacob Simon,

This portrait belonging to Newcastle University is currently called “Portrait of a Man Writing” by an unknown artist. We are asked in the discussion, “Is this a work by Joshua Reynolds? Is the sitter the renowned surgeon Percivall Pott?”

The consensus is that it is not by Reynolds and not of Pott, as advanced by almost all contributors. I am in a minority of one in thinking that it could be by Reynolds but such a judgment would depend on seeing the picture itself and that is not possible at present.

In the circumstances I would propose that the title be amended to “Portrait of a Man Writing, formerly identified as Percivall Pott” and that the artist be amended to “Unknown artist, formerly attributed to Joshua Reynolds”. I think that future researchers are more likely to make progress if these memories of the portrait are preserved. I am recommending that this discussion be closed.

Newcastle University,

Thanks for the suggestion of the sitter, Louis, we'll look into this further. Looks like more of a possibility in terms of visual correspondence and there's obviously a close link between Erasmus Darwin and Reynolds. We are hoping to undertake cleaning and conservation on this work in the near future at which time we will take better photographs of the work.