Whitechapel painter John Hoppner

John Hoppner self portrait

John Hoppner self portrait

He was a Whitechapel boy who rose to become George III’s favourite painter … so liked by the King that gossips suggested he was his illegitimate son. And yet today, John Hoppner is completely forgotten, while near contemporary Royal Academicians such as Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Turner are still known to modern Britons. John Hoppner was born in Whitechapel on April 4, 1758, the son of German parents. Germans had been settling in London in increasing numbers since a German prince had been invited to become King of the recently created Great Britain in 1714. By now, George I’s great-grandson, George III was on the throne. He, unlike George’s I and II, had been born in England and spoke English as his first language. But through the Anglicisation of the House of Hanover was well underway, there was still a powerful German influence at the Court of St James. Until the reign of William IV, in 1830, the official Court Orchestra was still composed exclusively of German musicians. And many of the servants and attendants at Court were German too, Hoppner’s mother among them. The young John became a chorister at the Royal Chapel, though quickly moved towards painting rather than music. In 1775 he began his studies at the Royal Academy, taking the silver medal for life drawing and, in 1782, the gold medal for historical painting, with a rendering of King Lear. Ironic considering his patron, to paint a monarch

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

who goes mad in later life, but there were other concerns. Whisperers at the Court were wondering just why John was so popular with the King… was he his secret son? Irony again. For though George was astonishingly fecund — his Queen Charlotte would give birth to 15 children, including two future Kings of Great Britain — he was one of the few of his line who didn’t have mistresses or illegitimate children. His interest in John seems to have been simple kindness. Hoppner yearned to be a landscape painter. Reynolds was a powerful influence, with his painterly, windswept woodland scenes. But Hoppner, though good, was no Reynolds and — crucially — portraits were where the money and commissions were. A newly minted member of the gentry, a war hero, even a successful actress might pay to have their own likeness made, but wouldn’t pay for scenic landscapes. Even the popular Classical subjects, considered ‘high’ art by the cognoscenti, were rare, though he did produce the fare expected of a serious painter of the time — a Sleeping Venus, Cupid and Psyche, and Jupiter and Io. Critics are sniffy about aspects of Hoppner, the chief criticism being that he couldn’t actually draw very well. What he did have was a remarkable grasp of colouration, one lesson he had learned from Reynolds. And most important of all to the jobbing painter, he was supremely well connected — much business flowed from the Court. And so he

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

produced paintings of Lord Nelson, of the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Wellington. He also painted Peter Dollond, the great lensmaker and son of the Spitalfields’ Huguenot family, whose name lives on in the opticians chain Dollond and Aitchison. But while the German from Whitechapel had an impeccable pedigree for a servant of the King, he had an unfortunate impediment: his mother-in-law, Patience Wright. Born into a New York, vegetarian Quaker family, she had turned her hobby (moulding faces from dough, wax and putty to amuse her three children) into a job, winning commissions to sculpt portraits in tinted wax. In a surreal twist, her New York wax museum burned down, and she moved to England, where she became another favourite of George III. She created wax sculptures of the Royal Family and nobility and for a while the King tolerated her blunt speaking as an eccentricity. Her daughter Phoebe had married Hoppner and the family seemed comfortably ensconced in London society and the Court. But with George fighting a desperate battle to hold onto this American colonies, Patience’s loud support for American independence was winning her no friends. Rumour had it that she was a spy for the cause, sending information gleaned at Court on how the British were preparing for war. If she was a spy, she wasn’t a very discreet one, and she soon found herself cast aside. It must have been a painful embarrassment for Hoppner, steadily building his business at the Court. Worse still, he now had a rival, in Thomas Lawrence. Nine years younger than Hoppner, the prodigious Lawrence had won a commission to paint the Queen when he was

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

just 21, and soon became the new favourite of the Prince of Wales. Reputations can soar and dive quickly in the art world, and by the early years of the new century, the once-lauded Hoppner’s name was in serious decline: while critics had once praised his brilliant colouration, they now mocked his shaky draughtsmanship. His eclipse, almost certainly, was hastened by his increasing distance from the Court that had earlier made him rich. Lawrence, meanwhile, was now acknowledged as the greatest, and most famous portrait painter in England. Hoppner would die in 1810, at just 51 of liver disease, after years of ill health, leaving a wife and five children. Lawrence would live till 1830 … and become President of the Royal Academy

Hoppner's Miss Mary Jane Linwood

Hoppner’s Miss Mary Jane Linwood

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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