Sotheby’s to auction painting behind memorable artist vs patron spat

The painting behind one of the most extreme examples of a breakdown in relationships between a social artist and his patron is due to be sold at Sotheby’s after remaining untouched in the Mountbatten family’s collection for nearly a century.

The harmonious domestic scene depicted in the 1800 oil sketch paints little information about the tension that has arisen between its creator, American artist John Singleton Copley, and Sir Edward Knatchbull, the wealthy Tory politician who hired him .

When Knatchbull asked Copley to paint a portrait of his second wife and ten children, the landowner naively imagined that it would take a month to complete. In that case, it lasted three years and ended in public embarrassment, severity and judicial arbitration over the artist’s fee.

Copley, an American artist trying to revive his career in the UK, had devised a plan for one of the largest conversation pieces ever painted, about ten meters wide. But his slow pace and constant demands from his paymaster for change made problems a lot more frequent.

With fond memories of his first wife, Knatchbull wanted her locked up. Copley made the unusual choice to portray the woman as one of a group of angels who looked down on the family.

Mark Hallett, director of the Paul Mellon Center, said William Hogarth and other artists of the period sometimes included dead people in their portraits, especially if a family member died during the time it was being painted. But Copley’s problem was more complicated.

“During this time there are cases where the deceased are inserted into family pictures as if they are still alive, but there are no portraits where the old and new women are present in the same room. Copley clearly had the challenge of taking portraits of these women, ”he said.

When the second woman died two years later and Knatchbull remarried, he insisted that the second woman be added to the heavenly onlookers and that her place in the family scene be taken by the third.

With Copley nearing graduation, his patron decided that his pregnant wife’s child, when it appeared, should also be part of the picture. The artist spent so much time reworking the painting in the family home that Knatchbull’s youngest daughter mistakenly called him “Daddy,” according to US historian James Thomas Flexner.

Copley hoped the unveiling of his monumental work would create an artistic sensation. It did, but for the wrong reasons. At a private performance before the public exhibition, Knatchbull was ashamed to find people laughing openly at his angel women hanging in the sky.

Furious, he had the painting removed and ordered Copley to paint over the floating group before cutting the work into three separate pieces. Later Knatchbull wanted to lower his fee and forced a lawsuit, which he lost after the artists’ friends and colleagues secured his account.

Julian Gascoigne, Sotheby’s chief specialist in British painting, said, “This is probably the most exaggerated case I know of the often strained relationship between the Society’s portraitist and patron saint in the early 19th century.”

The oil sketch is the last remaining record of Copley’s original grand imagination. It is now one of a line of items sold from the collection of Patricia Knatchbull, Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter and daughter of Earl Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. It has an estimate of £ 60,000 to £ 80,000 and will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s London headquarters on Wednesday.

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