Completed British 19th C, except portraits, British 20th C, except portraits, Military History 15 Was Nell painted by Arthur Ackland Hunt (1841–1914)?

Topic: Painting description

The ‘Daily Telegraph & Courier’, of Saturday 28th April 1883, reported that, on the day before, Lord Alcester (Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Paget Seymour, 1st Baron Alcester) arrived at Eastney Barracks, near Portsmouth, and, amongst other deserving recipients, decorated Nell, who had been through the Egyptian campaign with the Royal Marine Artillery, with a silver collar upon which was fastened miniature versions of the war medal and Khedive Star, all of which can be seen in the portrait.

The attached note describes how Nell became the RMA's mascot, and also that she died in 1885. This dates the painting to c.1883.

Art UK: The collection received this message from a member of the public: 'The painting is described [on Art UK] as being by an unknown artist, however I think it may well have been the work of my great-grandfather Arthur Ackland Hunt. He was a professional artist and, according to the census records for 1881, he held an appointment as freehand drawing instructor at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. The painting is typical of his meticulous style and his liking for warm, harmonious colours and I was immediately struck by its similarity to his other work. I realise that without more definite evidence my suggested attribution remains unproven, but I thought it would still be worthwhile to bring it to your attention.'

The collection would welcome any evidence that could support this suggestion. There are six paintings by the artist on Art UK.

Kieran Owens, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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Bill Ellson,

Jacinto, Sheepdog (photograph attached) by Arthur Ackland Hunt was sold by Doyle for $687 in 2008.
Doyle's website relates "Signed A. Ackland Hunt and indistinctly dated 1860 (lr)"
British Newspaper Archive search results confirm that he was usually styled as 'A. Ackland Hunt'
An obituary in the Sydenham, Forest Hill & Penge Gazette 24 April 1914 (also attached) relates that:
"In 1873 Mr Hunt was appointed on the professorial staff in painting and drawing at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, an appointment he held for 36 years. He continued to exhibit from time to time at the Royal Academy and at many other exhibitions."
Hunt exhibited a wide variety of paintings and drawings. Landscapes were his most common subject and there were buildings, ships, portraits etc, but 'Sheepdog' above is the only animal painting that shows up in my hasty searches.
Hunt appears to have been in the right place at the right time and had painted at least one other dog, but that is purely circumstantial.
The Doyle website refers to 'Sheepdog' being signed A Ackland Hunt, but no signature is visible in the photograph. ~ Has anybody taken a close look at the painting of Nell itself?

Osmund Bullock,

Not particularly, though he painted a fair number of human portraits; but it's clear from the extensive research into the artist here that he could and did turn his hand to anything - indeed there is one almost certain precursor, exhibited at the RA in 1870 (#654): 'Jock and his mistress (portrait').

I also agree that the tones and palette displayed here are consistent with Hunt's work on Art UK; and his employment at the Royal Naval College seems to offer a link to the Royal Marines (though Pieter vdM may be able to comment more knowledgeably on that). So very plausible, but more work (or a signature / inscription on the back?) needed.

I'm attaching an image of Hunt's 1881 census return with its unusually detailed coverage of his professional activities - see link above (here transcribed more exactly): “Artist – Painter in oil & watercolour. Portraits Figures Landscapes &c & Instructor in Freehand Drawing at the Royal Naval College Greenwich Civil Service appointment Admiralty”.

Osmund Bullock,

My "Not particularly" is of course a reply to Jacinto's post, not a comment on Bill's. So we now have at least two previous canine portraits, which is helpful.

Jacinto Regalado,

The rendering of Nell is crisper or more precise than that of the sheepdog, though perhaps the latter was not a portrait of a specific dog but a type. Still, they are handled differently.

Osmund Bullock,

Oh, I feel sure that's a real dog, Jacinto, possibly his own - the glove clinches it for me...but what on earth is the dog lying on? I rather suspect the 'sheepdog' title is just something Doyle's stuck on it - the legs are too short for one, surely, it looks more like a terrier...a rather unkempt drop-eared Skye, perhaps?

Oddly, I disagree with you about the different paint-handling - to my eye it is 'Nell' that has the looser, more painterly brushwork, evident (at least to me) when the image is enlarged a bit. But I don't think a changed technique precludes them being plausibly by the same artist. In 1860 Hunt was 19 years old, just starting out on his career and yet to exhibit - our dog was painted more than two decades later by (if him) an experienced, older hand.

As both Bill and I have remarked, we really do need a careful examination, front and back. Meanwhile, Marion, could you give us a maximum-res image of part of the lower-right quadrant near the edge (see attached)? With the brightness bumped up I (as ever) think I can see possible signatures lurking there...but (as ever) expect them to be illusions.

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Osmund, it was the collection that very recently asked for this to be investigated, so I assume they've done all they can, including looking for a signature. As usual, I looked for a signature before adding the discussion. There's no high-resolution image, but here's the area you're interested in (attached).

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I don't think one can draw anything from the Royal Naval College connection (the first I've seen of it, so thanks for that) other than the possibility of personal network contacts. It was originally at Portsmouth but after the Greenwich Hospital complex closed as a residential pensioner establishment in 1869 was transferred there (after some debate on the future use, and conversion work) and started operating from 1873 - the year Hunt was appointed to the teaching staff.

I have seen no mention of him in connection with the Naval Gallery in the Painted Hall (1824-1936). That continued throughout, though exactly how managed day-to-day is not clear, but the Honorary Curatorship fell vacant on Clarkson Stanfield's death in 1867 (and he had not latterly been active for health reasons) until Solomon Hart RA was appointed in 1874, and it was thereafter somewhat ill-recorded. William Frederick Yeames RA was the last formally noted to 1904, though by his own account active to 1911.

The Suffolk Artists website has a good entry on Hunt:

Jacinto Regalado,

Yes, Osmund, a difference of over 20 years between the two works, which I had not noted, could explain a difference in quality, which is clearly higher in the latter work.

Osmund Bullock,

Thanks, Pieter; and thank you, Marion - yes, just chaff, I think. I'm afraid I misread the intro: I thought the original suggestion had come to Art UK, not the NMRN/RMM, and assumed that the "the collection would welcome..." statement was just a pro forma agreement to the discussion. I'd also not realized (or had forgotten) that you check for signatures on the image yourself before posting...though knowing you I should have guessed. I'm sorry.

Jacinto, there's also the matter of size: the Doyle's dog is a significantly smaller work, just 10 x 12 in (25 x 30 cm or so) - see attached - which tends to alter brushwork in itself. Which is not to say I believe our painting is by Hunt, only that nothing so far rules it out.

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Osmund Bullock,

That is tremendously helpful, as it enables us to see the brushwork in great detail. We can now see that rather than being loose and painterly in a quite modern way (as I'd wrongly thought), the paint is thickly, and rather crudely applied throughout. The lack of definition is not the result of free and bold brushwork, but (to my eye) of a not terribly skilled artist going over it repeatedly in a choppy sort of way to try and get it right. The silver collar and medals, too, are a bit of a mess and fall between two stools - not a precise and accurate rendition, but also failing to convince as something free and impressionistic. Overall the end result is not bad, but it clearly took a lot of effort...and a huge quantity of paint.

I've analysed it in some detail, as by good fortune there is a work of Ackland Hunt's that we can also examine closely. His portrait of Hormuzd Rassam, also on Art UK, is on the BM website here - and this can be seen in high resolution by zooming in. It is an earlier work, it's true, and animal fur and human flesh present different challenges; but I'd be surprised if an artist capable of such adept work in 1869 had produced the dog under discussion in 1883. Note particularly how thinly Hunt applies the paint in many places, with the weave of the canvas clearly visible - and many of these areas, especially the book pages, are painted with long, bold, confident brushstrokes quite absent from our work (see attached detail 1). Hunt applies more paint and works harder when he's dealing with areas of skin, but he smoothes it out to give a fine finish - again something we don't find anywhere in our work. Attachment 2 is a detail of Rassam's head and neck compared with those of Nell. They are shown to scale - as painted, that is, not in real life.

I think it's most unlikely 'Nell' is by Ackland Hunt.

I am afraid I can't share Osmund's admiration for the portrait of Rassam by Ackland Hunt: the paintwork is indeed smooth, but coarse in detail, for example the creases beteen thumb and forefinger in both hands. The paint is not to my mind at all sophisticatedly applied.

I agree the style is different to that of Nell, but differences in Hunt's age, the subject matter and scale may account for that. Neither are great paintings and I would still consder Hunt a plausible author of Nell, even if we only have largely circumstantial evidence.