National Portrait Gallery buys monumental portrait of 19th century actor John Philip Kemble

By Culture24 Staff | 30 July 2009
a portrait of a seated man in robes

(Above) Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Philip Kemble as Cato (1812). Picture © NPG

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a portrait of one of the greatest English actors of the early 19th century, John Philip Kemble (1757-1823).

The full-length portrait, by Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830), was the artist's last of four great oils made of the actor and was widely considered to be his best.

It was purchased with help from Gift Aid Visitor ticket donations, Gallery supporters and a grant of £55,000 from independent art charity The Art Fund.

The great actor is depicted as Cato in Joseph Addison's play, staged in 1811 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. He is shown in the first scene of the final act when Kemble, seated alone, intoned the famous soliloquy on death and the immortality of the soul.

The painting was originally commissioned by Charles John Gardiner (1782-1829), 2nd Viscount Mountjoy, later 1st Earl of Blessington. It was acquired in the early 1830s by John Burton Philips and has remained in the same family until now, hanging for almost 200 years in the dining room of The Heath House in Staffordshire.

"As the finest and most resolved of Lawrence's 'half-history' portraits, the work will enrich the Gallery's capacity to explore the crucial dialogue between history painting and portraiture in the period," said Dr Lucy Peltz, 18th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery.

"It will allow the Gallery to present a richer and more balanced account of the development of portraiture in the early 19th century."

The portrait will be among the highlights of a Lawrence exhibition at the NPG in 2010. It joins two others on public view in London: Kemble as Hamlet at Tate Britain and Kemble as Coriolanus at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

John Philip Kemble as Cato is now on public display in the Regency Collection in the Weldon Galleries of the National Portrait Gallery (Room 19) where it will remain until the autumn, when it will be removed for conservation prior to the Lawrence exhibition (October 21 2010 – January 23 2011).

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