Art/ Collection/ Art Object

John Barker (1707–1787)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (British, Plympton 1723–1792 London)
Oil on canvas
68 1/4 x 47 1/2 in. (173.4 x 120.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Ruth Armour, 1954
Accession Number:
Not on view
John Barker was baptized in Lowestoft, a Suffolk port town, on November 9, 1707. His father was a merchant, from whom he inherited property in Lowestoft and an interest in ships sailing from Great Yarmouth. In 1741 he was elected to membership in the Younger Brethren of the Corporation of Trinity House, London, which was England’s leading lighthouse and harbor-pilot authority. He joined the Elder Brethren in 1750 and in 1762 became the warden. From 1771 until his death he served as governor of London’s principal marine insurance company, London Assurance. In the 1750s Barker had become interested in philanthropy, serving at various times as a governor or director of several London charities. In the background of the portrait there is a view of the enclosed basin and jetty of Ramsgate Harbour, Kent, the development of which occupied Barker, who was a highly trained engineer, from 1749 until his death. He was elected chairman of the Ramsgate Harbour Trustees’ Works Committee in 1760 and served for almost twenty-eight years. Although modernized, the harbor has not changed greatly in appearance since.

Barker had seven appointments for sittings with Reynolds between mid-February and early April of 1786, and on April 7 paid the artist two hundred guineas for his portrait. He died the following year at eighty, and the work may perhaps be understood to have been commissioned as a proud reprise of his long life and accomplishments. Originally, it was even larger, ninety-three by fifty-seven inches (236.2 × 144.8 cm), the size of a standing full-length (it was cut down between 1907 and 1915). A curious choice for the 1786 Royal Academy exhibition, it was not particularly well received by the press. The portrait is conservative: not only Barker’s velvet suit but also the composition, style, and rather finicky treatment of detail all probably accorded with the elderly sitter’s wishes. The work was engraved by John Jones in the year it was painted; a later engraving by Granger was published by Hardy in 1802 (Hamilton 1884). The painting has deteriorated over time in the most important passages, that is, the face, hands, wig, and red costume, all of which are thickly impasted.

[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Sir Thomas Lawrence (until d. 1830; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 15, 1830, no. 106, for £65.2.0 to Gilmore); Snell (until 1872; sale, Christie's, London, May 25, 1872, no. 63, for £47.5.0 to J. Holmes, bought in); Edward Cheney, Badger Hall, Shropshire; by descent to Francis Capel-Cure (until 1905; his sale, Christie's, London, May 6, 1905, no. 131, for £105 to Lawrence); sale, Christie's, London, June 14, 1907, no. 84, 93 x 57 in., for £141.15.0 to Wallis; Edward Rathbone Bacon, New York (until d. 1915; his estate, 1915–at least 1919; cat., 1919, no. 54, 67 x 46 in.); B. Svenonius, Stockholm, and L. Picard, Geneva (until 1931; sale, National Art Galleries, New York, April 16, 1931, no. 51, for $3,750); Mr. and Mrs. Hubert K. Dalton, Rumson, New Jersey (until 1941; sale, Parke-Bernet, New York, October 16, 1941, no. 56, for $475); Bernard R. Armour, Englewood, New Jersey (until d. 1949); his daughter, Ruth Armour, Englewood (1949–54)
London. Royal Academy. 1786, no. 215 (as "Portrait of a gentleman, whole length," lent by Reynolds).

London. Suffolk Street. "Works of Deceased and Living British Artists," 1832, no. 101 (as "Mr. Barker, the celebrated Engineer,—View of Ramsgate Harbour in the distance").

Edward Hamilton. The Engraved Works, of Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Engravings Made after His Paintings from 1755–1822. 2nd ed. (1st ed., London, 1874; repr., Amsterdam, 1973). London, 1884, pp. 5, 164, states that John Barker sat in 1786–87 and supplies biographical details; notes that the portrait had belonged to Sir Thomas Lawrence and records the buyer at the Lawrence sale as Mrs. Carker, for 32 guineas.

Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin. A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A. Vol. 1, London, 1899, p. 51, note a payment of £210 on April 7, 1786, for "Mr. Barker and Fa—"; quote three contemporary comments on the portrait, and record the buyer at the Lawrence sale as Gilmore, for £65.2.0.

Walter Armstrong. Sir Joshua Reynolds, First President of the Royal Academy. London, 1900, p. 192.

A. L. Baldry. Sir Joshua Reynolds. London, [1903], p. xxxviii.

James B. Townsend and W. Stanton Howard. Memorial Catalogue of Paintings By Old and Modern Masters Collected by Edward R. Bacon. New York, 1919, p. 47, no. 54.

Ellis K. Waterhouse. Reynolds. London, 1941, pp. 78, 84.

David Mannings and Martin Postle. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings (The Subject Pictures catalogued by Martin Postle). New Haven, 2000, vol. 1, p. 73, no. 108; vol. 2, fig. 1475, list seven appointments with the sitter (February 15, 17, 23, and 24, March 9 and 17, and April 7) and a payment of 2000 guineas on April 7, 1787; point out discrepancies in the listings of the size of the canvas, which must have been cut down.

John H. Appleby. "Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of John Barker, Chairman of Ramsgate Harbour." Metropolitan Museum Journal 41 (2006), pp. 133–39, fig. 1, provides extensive biographical details on the sitter, especially concerning his involvement in the construction of Ramsgate Harbor.

Giovanna Perini in Federico Barocci, 1535–1612: l'incanto del colore, una lezione per due secoli. Exh. cat., Santa Maria della Scala, Siena. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2009, pp. 246, 248–49 n. 45, fig. 177 (color), suggests that the composition is based on Barocci's portrait of Giuliano Della Rovera (about 1595; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 78–80, no. 33, ill. (color).

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