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Mather Brown 1761-1831
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Mather Brown 1761-1831

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Half-length portrait of Nathaniel Chauncey, 1717-1790, sitting at a small table on which rest a leather-bound book, two sheets of drawings and a “black basalt-ware” figure of the Muse of sacred poetry, Polyhymnia.1


Oil painting on canvas sight size 35 x 27 inches, and contained within its late 18th century giltwood George III frame


Provenance: By descent from the sitter to Miss Katherine Chauncey who bequeathed it to Colonel Chaunc(e)y; thence to his daughters the Misses Chaunc(e)y of 23 Bennett Street, Bath;
Their sale, Christies, London, 17 June 1921 (lot 98), as by Sir Joshua Reynolds and as a portrait of Dr Charles Chauncey (Nathaniel's elder brother) and painted in 1758, to E.Parsons & Sons, art dealers, on behalf of A.J.V. Radford Esq. of Malvern,
His sale Sothebys, 1957 (not traced) where acquired by Capt. F. Gordon Troup of Haslemere, and thence by descent to his son Donald Troup until 2010.


Literature: Graves and Cronin History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1898) p.1280 as a portrait of Charles Chauncey MD FSA, who sat for his portrait in 1758, and paid for it before 1760;
Sir Ellis Waterhouse Reynolds (1941) p.75 as the portrait of Nathaniel Chauncey exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 (no.16). The picture is listed as untraced and engraved and the size given as 76 x 63 cm (30 x 25 inches: the present painting is a “KitKat”, ie 36 x 28 inches) and illustrated as plate 159;
David Mannings Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, (2000) Volume I, page 130 sub. Catalogue number 352, (“Nathaniel Chauncey 1717-1790”) where he notes that “The portrait of Nathaniel Chauncey repr(oduced) in W(aterhouse) (pl.159) was subsequently attributed by Waterhouse himself to ?Mather Brown”

Painted circa 1786


Mather Brown (christened October 11, 1761– died May 25, 1831) was a portrait and historical painter, born in Boston, Massachusetts, but active in England. Brown was the son of Gawen and Elizabeth (Byles) Brown, and descended from the Rev. Increase Mather on his mother's side. He was taught by his aunt and around 1773 (age 12) became a pupil of Gilbert Stuart. He arrived in London in 1781 to further his training in Benjamin West's studio, entered the Royal Academy schools in 1782 with plans to be a miniature painter, and began to exhibit a year later.

In 1784, he painted two religious paintings for the church of St. Mary’s-in-the-Strand, which led Brown to found a partnership with the painter Daniel Orme for the commercialization of these and other works through exhibition and the sale of engravings. Among these were large paintings of scenes from English history, as well as scenes from Shakespeare's plays. However, despite their success he began to concentrate on portraiture. His first successes were with American sitters, among others his patron John Adams and family in 1784–85; this painting is now in the Boston Athenæum. In the spring of 1786, he began painting the earliest known portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who was visiting London. He also painted Charles Bulfinch the same year.

His 1788 full-length portrait of Prince Frederick Augustus in the uniform of Colonel of the Coldstream Guards led to appointment as History and Portrait Painter to the Prince, later the Duke of York and Albany. Other paintings include the Prince of Wales, later George IV (about 1789), Queen Charlotte, and Cornwallis. A self-portrait now belongs to the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
A falling off of patronage in the mid-1790s, and failure to be elected to the Royal Academy, led Brown to leave London in 1808 for Bath, Bristol, and Liverpool. He settled in Manchester, returning to London almost two decades later, in 1824, where, even after West's death, he continued to imitate his teacher's style of painting. Unable to secure commissions, Brown eventually died in poverty in London.

The art-historical status of this painting has been the subject of much confusion since it was first published in 1899-1901 by Graves and Cronin as a portrait of Dr Charles Chauncey MD FSA (1706-1777) by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA. This error repeated in the 1921 sale at Christies, when it was described as of Charles Chauncy (sic) and painted in 1758.

Dr David Mannings (Complete Catalogue.....2000, page 130) demonstrates conclusively that the “Mr Chauncy Junior” who appears in Reynolds ledgers for 1758 was in fact William Henry Chauncey (1728-1788). Dr Charles Chauncey had appointments with Reynolds in 1755 (14 June) and 1770 (3 September) and 1771 (18 March), though any portraits resulting from these sittings, if they exist, are no longer extant or traceable.
Certainly, on the grounds of costume alone, the present painting cannot date before the mid-1780's, and the 1921 Christie cataloguing must thus fail on both dating and identity grounds. However, the error was compounded by Ellis Waterhouse when publishing his 1941 monograph on Reynolds: he reproduces the present picture as plate 159. By now Waterhouse had realised that the portrait could not be of Charles Chauncey and the Royal Academy painting of 1784, since Charles Chauncey had already died in 1777, and he correctly identifies the sitter as Nathaniel Chauncey, elder brother of Charles. He does, though, give the incorrect measurements for the painting: he lists it as 30 x 25 inches rather than the correct 36 x 28 inches. Within a few years, Waterhouse had realised his error: “....... when I saw the picture in the flesh a few years after my book came out, I felt certain it was not by Reynolds. In fact your remarks have made me think it is probably by Mather Brown” 2

Nathaniel Chauncey did indeed sit for Reynolds in 1784, when his portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy 3 That picture, now untraced but bequeathed to his son-in-law Dr Thomas White and his daughter, is documented by the engraving (see below) executed by Caroline Wilson. Nathaniel Chauncey, now approaching the end of his life, seems to have commissioned several portraits of himself to bequeath to his posterity: apart from the present painting and the Reynolds, he also had a miniature by Samuel Shelley4 (to whom he bequeathed 19 guineas in a codicil to his will dated 22 December 1786 – and revoked in another codicil5 on 27th August 1789)

Dr Dorinda Evans, then working on her monograph and catalogue of Mather Brown was the first to point out that the composition of the Nathaniel Chauncey portrait mirrored that of the portrait by him of Benjamin Franklin (1786), though in her view at that time (November 1977) the portrait was “not obvious as by MB”. Waterhouse, though, had come round to thinking that the portrait was certainly not by Reynolds, but “probably by Mather Brown”, a view to which he held. By September 1979, in the light of her further research, Dr Evans had shown that the evidence of engravings and the artist's sitter books showed conclusively that the present painting was not by Reynolds but rather perhaps by Mather Brown; “the more I think about it, the more likely it seems”6

At some point, perhaps in the late 19th century, the painting had been quite heavily over-painted to make the surface appear more solid (and, presumably Reynolds-like). The extent of the over-paint had, no doubt, made art-historical judgement as to the status of the painting fraught with difficulties. This problem has recently been alleviated by the campaign of conservation and cleaning, which has removed much of this unnecessary accretion, and which has revealed a painterly surface which is both vigorous, lively and direct – much removed from the learned stodginess of late Reynolds portraiture. The brushwork is bravura, in a way that strongly recalls Gilbert Stuart's7 work in mid 1780's London, and which places it technically and temporally, much closer to the Benjamin Franklin of 1786. Whilst it had been thought that this composition had been filched from Reynolds 1784 picture by Brown in 1786, the Chauncey had to be viewed as the fons et origo of the Franklin composition. Since there is now no evidence either way over which picture was painted first, we may more easily conclude that this is Brown's own successful composition which he chose to repeat: the Franklin may or may not be chronologically anterior to the Chauncey, but they must be very close indeed in date, and in the writer's view by the same hand.


Comparative Pictures



Caroline Watson after Sir Joshua Reynolds “Nathaniel Chauncy Esqr” The engraving records the appearance of the Reynolds portrait of Chauncey, now unlocated, which was exhibited at the RA 1784 (16). In a codicil to his will dated 1st March, the Reynolds painting was bequeathed to his son-in-law Dr. Thomas White. Whilst clearly the same sitter as the present portrait, the composition is wholly unrelated


Henry Tresham: The excavation of the statues of Apollo and Nine Muses at the Villa do Cassio, Tivoli,1779. (Watercolour drawing, Private Coll. Ireland) The sculptures depicted are now in the Galeria delle Statue, Room of the Muses, Museo Vaticano. The drawing depicts the moment when Polyhymnia was disinterred. Tresham (resident in Italy 1775-1788) was an enthusiastic amateur of ancient sculpture, in which he dealt, as well as being an accomplished artist.



Mather Brown Thomas Jefferson This famous early image of one of America's greatest heroes was painted in London in 1786. It is identical in size, and virtually identical in composition with the present painting



1. The seven statues of the Muses, including Polyhymnia, had been excavated in an olive grove at Tivoli by Domenico de Angelis (fl.1769 – c.1786), in what is now identified as the Villa of Cassius. A total of 12 statues were acquired and finally paid for on 4th February 1780 by the Vatican Museum, where they remain to this day. It is noteworthy that the composition had within a very few years been adopted by an English potter for a “Basalt-ware” figure, as shown in the portrait. The potter seems not to have been Wedgwood, and no reference to his making such a figure is to be found in the Wedgwood Museum today.

2.  Letter to Dr Dorinda Evans 26 November 1977

3. “Portrait of Dr Chauncey's brother is an admirable proof of the President's superior talent” (Morning Chronicle, review of the Academy of 1784)

4.  Engraved by Willian Nutter after Shelley, and inscribed “N Chauncy 1785”

5. Like many rich old men, Nathaniel Chauncey seemed to dwell long on his demise. His will is dated 9 February 1784 but by the time of his death six years later, he had added 18 codicils, and change his testamentary bequests to numerous people including most of his family, many of his friends and virtually all of his servants




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