British portraiture saw an extraordinary resurgence in the eighteenth century as the country's wealth grew through trade. Not only did British-born portrait painters take over the practice but, as professions became established, the demand for portrait paintings came from circles beyond the court and aristocracy. In the seventeenth century court painters like Van Dyck, Lely and Kneller were most prominent; in the eighteenth century successful painters had a much wider clientele that might also include doctors, lawyers, merchants, and successful people in all fields.

In response to intellectual changes later in the century painters concentrated more on individual character and sentiment. Patrons had a wide range of choice, say between the grandeur of a portrait by Joshua Reynolds or the sensibility of a portrait by Gainsborough, though choice was also dictated by the high cost of portraits by fashionable artists.

At the same time, even the most successful artists felt that portrait painting was a lesser form of art, more concerned with mere imitation or flattery of the sitters than serious purposes. Reynolds would have preferred to paint elevated moral subjects and Gainsborough landscapes, but this did not prevent them producing stirring portraits of both sexes. The work of the great artists has long been catalogued and few of their portraits remain unidentified, but there were also many other portrait painters whose authorship and sitters are less easy to identify, and may need the attention of specialists.