Completed Maritime Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C 59 Who is the sitter in this portrait by John Downman?

Formerly Called 'Nevil Maskelyne, 1732–1811, Astronomer Royal'
Topic: Subject or sitter

Could I draw attention to the longstanding problem of who the sitter is in this portrait by John Downman, signed and dated 1779. The current Your Paintings entry broadly explains why we (National Maritime Museum) no longer believe it is the fifth Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. This has become clearer now we have other portraits of Maskelyne, including both a chalk/pastel head study and an oil by John Russell: these confirm his eyes were blue, not the hazel of this sitter – who is also not shown in clerical dress, as Maskelyne is in all others we know. He also appears (probably) older than 47, which would have been Maskelyne's age in 1779. Despite some resemblance to the amateur astronomer George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield and President of the Royal Society, he died in 1764, which seems to rule him out unless Downman only dated the work later. The column behind suggests a man of standing and the fold-out plate in the book he holds, apparently showing Saturn and Jupiter, is a firm clue that he is an astronomer or related theoretician who wrote on planetary matters (also not Maskelyne's interest). However, no-one has yet identified the printed source holding the plate, or done a search of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which is an obvious early one to eliminate. Evidenced suggestions would be very welcome.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. We have been unable to identify the sitter, but the discussion lists some books that might be helpful if copies can be found/time found to go through them.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Paul Kettlewell,

Attached are two articles from the Morning Post dated 8 Aug 1782 and 26 Sep 1782. They suggest that there is a book called "Jupiter And Saturn, their appearance in the heavens and influence on the Earth". It would appear that it had a plate of the planets, and that it was a second edition, could the first edition have been around 1779, and this be the book in the painting?
There is no mention of the author's name, however it appears in Google Books and the name is given as "T H", and on one site as T Harrington.

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Oliver Perry,

Maybe its worth pointing out that from the larger image on the museum's website, it's clear that the plate shows not just the two giant planets, but the others below it, much smaller, presumably in proportion to their actual size.

Thanks for those ingenious and observant comments. One other point to add (which also seems to rule out that the plate might be in a paper in the 'Phil. Trans.') is that the book the man holds appears to be one of two volumes, the second lying flat on the surface below. This suggests something substantial and, given the style of the portrait by someone whose name, once found, ought to be fairly familiar. By contrast 'Jupiter And Saturn...' in the newspaper adverts sold for only one shilling - which even then was for something small, while the title plate of Harrington's 'Science Improved' does not suggest it is 2 vols. Note the line at the bottom, showing it is a work 'Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of the BRITISH YOUTH of both Sexes' (i.e., perhaps by a minor astronomer/schoolmaster, though the only Thomas Harrington who pops up on simple search is a 19th-century coachbuilder).
So we are probably looking for an author of some social standing who wrote a large and fairly expensive two-volume work on the planets sometime around 1770-plus....

Andrea Kollmann,

The four small objects beneath Jupiter probably are the four Galilean moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

If that's the case, then there is a potential longitude-by-observation connection, since it could be determined by observation of the moons of Jupiter (which is also in Maskelyne's area of interest). However, given the size of the book, and the second volume, and the presence of Saturn, I still suspect a longitude aspect as likely to be only incidental..

Andrea Kollmann,

I have to withdraw my previous statement, I overlooked that Uranus was discovered in 1781, so only six planets were known in 1779 and are shown here in increasing distance to the sun.

Martin Hopkinson,

The features of the man in this portrait do not look much like those of Herschel, of whom there are many portraits

Martin Hopkinson,

1. Is it that this is a lifetime portrait?
2. Is it it certain that the sitter is primarily an astronomer, and not a philosopher, scientist, theologian who wrote about the heavens? One thinks of Emanuel Swedenborg, for instance, much admired at the time - and one of his followers might have commissioned a posthumous portrait.
3. The sitter maybe a patron of study of astronomy, not a well-known astronomer in his own right - and he could be holding a publication which he funded rather than wrote

Paul Kettlewell,

Another possibility could be an astronomer named William Lacy, who was producing books with plates about this period. Attached is an advertisement from the "Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser" dated 25 Oct 1777 for a book about the solar system, although in this case the plate mentioned appears to include the sun.

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Neil Jeffares,

For Thomas Harrington, see my But I doubt if he is relevant. Downman was active in Cambridge around this time, so i wondered about Anthony Shepherd, professor of astronomy at the right time. But the resemblance with the Gerard van der Puyl painting of 1784 isn't good enough.

R. Stephens,

If identifying the book is the way to go, the easiest way to discover what books on astronomy were published in the 1770s is to search the ESTC (, using 'astronomy' as a subject and giving the date as '1770->1779'. There were only 40 or 50 or so. You can then search through the authors who were still alive at the time of publication, and (if you think the 2nd book in the picture implies a 2-vol publication) disregard all but the 2-volume publications. Or you could search for books with 'planets' (or whatever) in the title.

I agree this is a portrait of a figure of some standing, not a Grub Street author of some school book on the planets. I doubt that a patron would be painted holding a book like this. The act of encouragement itself - with, obviously, his name in the dedication - provided ample association with a scholarly book.

Paul Kettlewell,

I think William Lacy needs to be treated seriously - attached is a picture of an orrery made by Lacy, now owned by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, emphasising the Saturn system, and dated 1779 the same year as the painting.

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R. Stephens,

I have to admit I think the idea that the Downman picture shows Maskelyne is reasonable, even if no more than that.

There is an 1804 engraving, after a portrait of him done in middle age, that shows him out of clerical robes, so clearly that isn't an issue (the NMM even owns one of Maskelyne's red suits); and with lips, nose, brow and weary gaze that are pretty compatible with the painting under discussion here - though there's no great resemblance (though a good resemblance to the Russell sketch). Downman was well known, after all, for providing rather kindly treatments of his subjects

The 1804 engraving:

The Russell sketch:

The NMM website says that there is an 1804 oil portrait by Russell of Maskelyne, and an 1801 miniature. I couldn't find images of either, could they perhaps be made available?

I think the book plate is the key and I'll try the ESTC subject-route suggested (hitherto I've only attempted a random word search in the BL catalogue). Having further checked the 1804 Russell portrait recently (2012) acquired by NMM it is, in fact, a pastel not an oil- see attached image. I have not yet personally seen the original, so am not yet clear from the very basic record so far on our database whether it in fact dated 1804 itself, or that is a received date based on the print in the 'European Magazine', already mentioned, which is dated March 1804 for which it is (with slight adjustment) the original image ( However, they eyes are blue - as in the Russell sketch - and the likeness to 'mystery man' not convincing. No photo of the 1801 miniature is yet available. (I don't think we have a 'red suit' of Maskelyne's: we just have his observing suit which is a striped-patterned orangey silk 'onesy' and very untypical of any normal dress.)

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R. Stephens,

Thank you for uploading the pastel portrait by Russell, it looks very fresh. I'd guess the date of 1804 has come about as a result of the engraving, as it's obviously not a man in his 70s.

Sorry: concerning the onesie, I simply meant to imply that it's obvious Maskelyne's public profile was not exclusively bound up with his use of clerical clothing; he was also known for wearing non-clerical clothes. So the absence of clerical clothes in your portrait has no bearing on the idea that he is the sitter.

Though I still have a check of the back to do, the (finished) Russell portrait of Maskelyne (NMM ZBA5100) undoubtedly shows him at age about 70 - and possibly exactly so, though not apparently signed or dated. The spine title of the book under his right hand is illegible but is clearly inscribed 'VOL III' and must be that volume (of four, the last in 1811) of his 'Astronomical Observations' made at Greenwich, published in 1799. Given that the print derived from it is dated 1 March 1804, its terminus must be 1803 at latest and since it makes a pair with one of his wife, Sophia, who by coincidence turned 50 in the same year as he turned 70 (1802), it is at least possible that was the occasion for them, supposing publication of 'VOL III' itself wasn't. As regards Downman's 'Mr X' dated 1779, this simply underlines that one is looking at someone probably of about the same age -or at least into his 60s- at that earlier time.

Neil Jeffares,

I wonder how accurately the artist has depicted the plate? Only the moons of Jupiter seem to be shown. Could he have simplified this plate from George Adams, A Treatise Describing the Construction, and Explaining the Use of New Celestial and Terrestrial Globes, London, 4th ed., 1777, fronting p.31: it's a fold out near the beginning of the book. The artist had difficulty with the fold in the paper, and perhaps didn't dare attempt the obliquity of the ring. I haven't checked earlier editions of the treatise. The difficulty is that Adams (of whom I know no portrait) is dead by 1779. Is the date certain?

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The artist depicted the plate accurately enough to show the two folds, which are not necessary in the plate Neil Jeffares illustrates. The angle of Saturn's rings and the location of Jupiter's moons also suggest a different plate. So the book, as Peter says, is still the most useful clue.

Jade Audrey King,

We have tweeted about this discussion in the hope followers of the Royal Astronomical Society, British Astronomical Association and British Society for History of Science will take an interest:

Understandably there is a risk in doing this that the 'discussion' will continue on Twitter, but we will try our best to get any interested parties to sign up to Art Detective and post their thoughts here.

Thanks Jade: that was a good idea. I suspect that when this one resolves itself - though when is unpredictable - it will be by a sudden and perhaps serendipitous discovery of the identity of the plate, the book(s) and thereby the author- at which point we may all say ' how silly, why didn't we get that earlier?': I live in hope!

Cliff Thornton,

Is there any significance in the drawings of the planets appearing on the reverse of the page? Normally they would appear on the opposite side of the page in a fold out illustration. Or is this just a case of artistic licence?

Noted Cliff, but probably not significant in the way you suggest: fold-out plates are usually single-sided and can be bound in either way, if perhaps more usually by the right edge, as a recto folio when opened up. If the books are found with the plate in this way it would at least help confirm a match. What is less usual is that it's a double-fold sheet with nothing printed on the inner third (as it appears), but if not artistic misunderstanding that may also prove a tell-tale.

Patty Macsisak,

Re: Paul Kettlewell’s post, please consider that T.H. represents Thomas Harrington. His books include:
- “Science improved or the theory of the universe Comprehending a rational system of the most useful as well as entertaining parts of natural and experimental philosophy, embellished with copper-plates, ... By Thomas Harrington. London : printed for the author; and sold by S. Crowder; J. Walter; and W. Shropshire,1774.
o Images of the entire book can be found on the Villanova University web site
- “Jupiter and Saturn: Their Appearance in the Heavens, and Influence on the Earth”, printed for the author; and sold by J. Walter, Charing Cross; S. Baldwin, Paternoster Row, and all the Booksellers in England.
o Images of the entire book can be found on Google Books.;="Jupiter+And+Saturn,+their+appearance+in+the+heavens+and+influence+on+the+Earth"&source=bl&ots=BwgEfVTreb&sig=70mXiMo8P4150ddUEgEgwsJADX8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwimm-OuqZPKAhVCVyYKHa4MBqcQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q="Jupiter And Saturn, their appearance in the heavens and influence on the Earth"&f=false
o Refer to page 63 for information regarding books to be published by the same author, including:
 “The New Introduction To The Knowledge And Use Of Maps”.
 “The Celestial Directory”
Unfortunately, I cannot locate a biography or image of Thomas Harrington. I did find some unflattering reviews of his "Jupiter and Saturn" book.

Thanks for these comments, though where we don't have comparable images they have to remain speculative. Hutton (1737-1823) is the same sort of solid face but I don't think it is: he was a mathematician rather than an observational astronomer and the portrait clearly shows a man at the very least in his mid-50s and though probably older, not one of 42, which was his age in the year it is dated (1779).

Tim Williams,

It looks like the title text on the right page might be clear enough to read? See attached image.

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Bruce Trewin,

The text associated with the above Hadley portrait;

This portrait is presumed to be that of John Hadley (1682-1744). Corroborating this hypothesis is the fact that the person portrayed is shown holding an octant — the instrument, precursor of the sextant, that Hadley presented to the Royal Society in 1731. But some doubt still remains as to the identity of the portrait, since by that time Hadley was 49, while the person portrayed seems younger.

Sophie Grillet,

"From the mid 1750s to the mid 1770s, Franklin spent much of his time in London. Officially he was there on a political mission, but he used his time to further his scientific explorations as well, meeting many notable people." (Wikipedia) Franklin travelled around Britian, Ireland and France, returning to America in 1785. Benjamin Franklin was a patron of John Hadley's teacher Benjamin West. This does look like Benjamin Franklin.

Nice idea but I think a matter of opinion and I'm not convinced: Franklin has a straighter nose, in most portraits a much more lantern jaw (in which Chamberlin -which I didn't know, so thanks for that- rather flatters him). He usually, though not in that formal instance, has his own hair rather than a wig -and one still has to produce the specific planetary connection, which is a bit out of Franklin's more mechanical line of science.

Osmund Bullock,

Yes, I don't think it can be Franklin. In March 1775 he left England, where he had become 'persona non grata', and returned to America, from where he was sent to France in 1776. By 1779, the date of our portrait, England was at war with both America and France, and Franklin was well-ensconced at Passy, near Paris. A visit to England in 1778-9 would have been highly unlikely, none is recorded, and in fact the copious correspondence published in detail here indicates that he remained in France until July 1785, when he returned to America via England:

Furthermore, as Pieter mentions, by the late 1770s Franklin invariably wore his own long hair (or what was left of it): the bewigged Chamberlin portrait is much earlier - 1762, in fact**. Other earlier portraits of 1759 (Benjamin Wilson) and 1766 (David Martin) also show him in a wig.
(** )

There are in fact numerous extant portraits of him dating from 1777-80, all taken in France.
Greuze portrait 1777:
Caffiéri bust 1777:
Duplessis portrait 1778:
Houdon bust 1778:
Rosalie Filleul portrait 1778-9:

Comparison with these must surely rule him out.

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, while it seems unlikely that no-one at the NMM has looked closely at the possible name at the top of the RH page before (though stranger things have happened), is there a chance we could see a high-res of it? Or if one doesn't exist, get a close-up digital snap of it?

Tim Williams,

Second Osmund's request, and perhaps one of the signature and date (I don't doubt it, but while we're at it, we may as well be thorough). Additionally, were you able to inspect the back Pieter?

I will do, but apologies for delay as its in store and I have other things going on, but may not be able to se the back. Its anyway almost certain to have been lined at some point and most of our pictures that have been displayed in my memory (and this has) have been backed and glazed, partly for climatic reasons in historic buildings of not always ideal environment and/or damage by 'public carelessness' in sometimes restricted spaces.

Pieter, although it's 2 years since anyone posted on this discussion, would you still like to see those high-resolution images? Presumably (as there's no record here) you didn't see the back of the picture, or get a closer look at the possible name, signature and date in 2016? I see that the NMM now lists this as 'Portrait of an unknown gentleman (previously identified as Nevil Maskelyne)'.

Thanks for the reminder. Unless you have anything already that might answer Osmund's and Tim's immediately preceding points (and I suspect not) you'd better leave with me, now prompted. Irritatingly, now everything has been moved to new storage it also appears to be of more restricted access.... but I'll at least try and get a better detail of the pages - which is what is eventually, going to unlock this. I suggest you bring the title in line with what's on the NMM entry.

Kieran Owens,

It is surely obvious that the fold-out plate shows the then-known planets of the solar system, descending in order of furthest to nearest in distance from the sun, that is Saturn (with its rings), Jupiter, Mars, the Earth, Venus and Mercury? Even their relative sizes to each other are clearly shown. The attached modern NASA image shows this relationship for comparison.

The plate on the opposite side to this fold-out seems to show a very low horizon line, possibly at sea, and a large expanse of sky above it. This might suggest that the plate depicts some astronomical observations made on a scientific voyage.

Kieran Owens,

If anyone has access to the library of The Royal Society (of London), it might be worth checking to see if the book is the two volume quarto edition of the French astronomer Abbé Alexandre-Gui Pingré's 'Voyage fait en 1771 et 1772, pour verifier l'Utilité de plusieurs Methods et Instrumens servant a déterminer la Latitude et Longitude, tant du Vaisseah due des Cotes, Isles et Ecueils u'on reconnoit', which roughly translated means 'Voyage made in 1771 and 1772, to verify the Utility of several Methods and Instruments used to determine Latitude and Longitude, both of the Ship and of the Coasts, Isles and Reefs that are found'. The book was published in 1778 and was donated to the Society by "Dr. Maskelyne" sometime after June 1778 and before June 1779, a time-period that ties in with this painting's date.

In 1769, Pingré had joined a successful expedition to Haiti to observe the transit of Venus, and in 1771 he participated in the naval survey on the frigate La Flore with Verdun de la Crenne and Borda. According to online sources, "The ship, however, was seized by British forces at sea, and Pingré was deposited in Portugal, having lost all his notes." The above-mentioned book from this trip took a further eight years to publish.

There are some references to Pingré and to this book on Gallica, but unfortunately not the book itself.

Jérôme de Lande, 'Bibliographie astronomique avec l'histoire de l'Astronomie depuis 1781 à 1802' (Paris, 1803) is an interesting reference, being an extensive bibliography of writings on astronomy from across Europe even from before the advent of printing. There are many references to Pingré as a translator as well as author (his translations of Marcus Manilius and Cicero are also in the British Library), and to Maskelyne.

In the Caird Library (part of the Maskelyne collection) is this book by Pingré's on the passage of Venus of 3 June 1769, which has 2 volumes and one folding plate: ‘Memoire sur le choix et l'etat des lieux ou le passage de Venus du 3 Juin 1769 pourra etre observe avec le plus d'avantage : et principalement sur la position geographique des isles de la mer du sud’, 1767.

The marble bust of Pingré on Wikipedia looks very different though...

The illustration in question clearly doesn't depict the Transit of Venus, but I just wanted to draw attention to its presence in the Caird, since Pingré is being considered. Jérôme de Lande's bibliography could perhaps suggest some books to check.

Kieran Owens,

The other most significant astronomical event of 1779 was the triple conjunctions between Mars and Saturn. See here for an outline of the phenomena:

There might be some connection between this portrait's date and that event, though the fold-out does suggest that it was the order and relative sizes of the planets that was of importance to the sitter.

Kieran Owens,

In George Charles Williamson's 1907 "John Downman, A.R.A.; His Life and Works", is it reported that, at the age of 25, Downman was press-ganged into naval service in c.1775 and that he was absent from England for nearly two years. Returning in 1777, he resided at Cambridge for about a year, executing very many drawings and sketches of the academics and citizens of that place. He moved to London sometime in 1778, after which date his addresses can be seen in the Royal Academy lists of his exhibited works. It is possible, therefore, that our portrait might have been started from a sketch made in 1777/1778 of a Cambridge man of science.

Contained in Williamson's book are several lists of many sketches, some dating from 1777, 1778 and 1779, a reading through of which might lead to an academic's name being recognised as a potential candidate for our sitter's identity.

Kieran Owens,

A fully readable version of the book that Al Brown linked to four years ago - Science Improved: or the Theory of the Universe by Thomas Harrington, published London 1774 - is now available to read in its entirety here:

Alas, it does not contain our painting's engraved plate.

Thanks for these inputs Kieran, and for scotching Harrington - assuming it's a complete copy online: Neil Jeffares wondered earlier about Prof Anthony Shepherd at Cambridge but thought he wasn't close enough, and I suspect this man's a 'gent' rather than a 'clerk in holy orders' as per Maskelyne or - at least techinically -many another Oxbridge man, though I've not checked Shepherd in that regard.

Howard Jones,

Is the colour of the coat, which is an interesting 'dull red', original, or was it a brighter red but in need of cleaning? The wig looks of an earlier type for the date and suggests that he was an older man as already noted. I assume one man could retain the same wig or style of wig for many years.

Where is the painting signed? Could there be any writing near the bottom of the pages of the book or any marks beneath the paint which may show up through the grey of the pages?

Following Kieran's suggestion (2/9/18) has anyone been able to check the list of paintings and sketches in George Charles Williamson, 'John Downman, A.R.A.; His Life and Works' (1907)?

Kieran noted: 'Contained in Williamson's book are several lists of many sketches, some dating from 1777, 1778 and 1779, a reading through of which might lead to an academic's name being recognised as a potential candidate for our sitter's identity.'

Thanks for prompt Marion, which I'll add to my next BL requests if no-one else sees it earlier. Partly in answer tyo Howard Jones's earlier query, I forget where the inscription is but 'Jno Downman Pinx 1779' is definitely there, but not on the book plate, which bears nothing readable.

Louis Musgrove,

Wigs- Maskelyne seems to always have a wig with two curls each side.This gentleman has three curls each side- which seems to be a German or Colonial American style.See piccie of Euler.
Also I have looked on ABE books to see what books on astronomy were published around 1778 and are for sale now- and it is a surprisingly large number!

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Jacob Simon,

Does this 7 year old discussion, "Who is the sitter in this portrait by John Downman?" have any mileage left in it after 56 contributions? Or is it time to close it inconclusively?

Having started the matter I'm sorry it remains open and grateful for the various suggestions. As (I hope) they will remain accessible they may help further on and agree this could go to 'archive' for now.