Romantic portraits: William Wordsworth by Henry William Pickersgill

by Tim Moreton

As a portrait of an extremely respected public figure by a well established contemporary portrait painter, this painting might at first sight have seemed a very straightforward candidate for acquisition by the newly formed Portrait Gallery when it was offered for purchase by the artist in 1860. William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Poet Laureate, was one of the longest lived and most productive of the English Romantic poets, whose lines such as “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, and “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven”, are probably as well known even to this day as many by Shakespeare, while the artist, Henry William Pickersgill (1782-1875), if not a household name to us today, had been welcomed as a sober successor to the Regency effervescence of Sir Thomas Lawrence to become the painter of deliberated likenesses of a variety of sitters such as Hannah More and Jeremy Bentham, George Stephenson and Richard Owen, whose portraits also now belong to the Portrait Gallery’s collection.

William Wordsworth by and after Henry William Pickersgill, oil on canvas, circa 1850

Further enquiry, however, soon reveals the kind of more complicated story which lies behind a surprising number of the Gallery’s portraits. The clue lies in the painting’s date.  First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, it was not undertaken until after the sitter’s death in 1850, and was apparently conceived not as a memorial portrait but more as a business opportunity though in this Pickersgill was to be disappointed, eventually agreeing to sell it to the Gallery “with some reluctance”, according to a letter in its present Archive, for the comparatively modest sum of £100 and “only under the consideration of it being preserved to all time”.

While the date of its offer to the Portrait Gallery narrowly allowed it to satisfy the Gallery’s early acquisition criterion that the sitter be deceased by at least ten years, the date and nature of its composition, however, directly challenged the founding determination that wherever possible, only portraits taken from the life would be accepted . Careful comparison with Pickersgill’s earlier surviving portraits of Wordsworth, especially the chalk study and painting in oil of 1832-3 still at St John’s College, Cambridge, reveals that, instead of creating a fresh image, albeit based on his recollection of the older Wordsworth rather than from actual sittings, Pickersgill now chose to raid his earlier painting. In this he relied heavily on the previous depiction of the head, and replaced his subject’s academic gown with a black suit, neckcloth and bow-tie. This moved at least one Academy viewer, Sara Coleridge, to protest that the “velvet waistcoat [and] neat shiny boots” were “just the sort of dress he would not have worn if you could have hired him”. She noted disparagingly also “a sombre sentimentalism of countenance quite unlike his own look, which was either elevated with high gladness or deep thought, or at times simply and childishly gruff–but never tender after that fashion, so lackadaisical and mawkishly sentimental.” Even allowing for the charged circumstances surrounding the poet’s recent death, and the surprising frequency with which the reactions of even close friends and family to a portrait’s veracity may contradict each other, the detailed nature of Sara Coleridge’s objections evidently issue from intimate and habitual observation and have the ring of truth.

Given the nature of the portrait’s unusual circumstances and even stranger composition, it is perhaps only to be expected that to modern eyes it now seems rather tame, especially when compared with Haydon’s image of the poet brooding on Helvellyn dating from 1842 which the Portrait Gallery was able to acquire in 1920 as a bequest through the generosity of John Fisher Wordsworth, and which Wordsworth himself considered “the best likeness, that is the most characteristic, which has been done of me”. Despite the poet’s longevity which saw the production of a considerable range of images, however, no one portrait of Wordsworth has even now fully satisfied posterity so that this painting by Pickersgill, if only by the nature of its unusual origins, promises to be a constant reminder of the possible complexities which may lie hidden at first behind even the least exceptionable of portraits.

The Pickersgill portrait is on long-term loan to the Wordsworth Trust from the National Portrait Gallery, and can be seen at The Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere.

Tim Moreton
About Tim Moreton: Formerly Registrar and now Curatorial Fellow during a career at the National Portrait Gallery of more than 30 years, Tim is currently researching the evolution of the Gallery’s acquisition policy, while continuing his own preoccupation with the role of the portrait in the English Novel, previously the subject of a doctoral thesis, in recognition of the persistent vitality of the device in much contemporary writing.  His portrait is by James Lloyd.