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John Frederick Sackville, Reynolds and the Miniaturist

Painted portrait of a man in a gold coloured frame
Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds on display in the Reynolds Room, Knole, Kent | © National Trust

As part of Framing Knole: celebrating 300 years of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, read about the legacy of John Frederick Sackville, Reynolds and Ozias Humphry.

When thinking about the collection at Knole, John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) and Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723–1792) are synonymous. John Frederick Sackville became Reynolds’ most valuable patron, spending a small fortune collecting over 20 pieces of his work, much of which is now displayed in the aptly named Reynolds Room at Knole. Sackville and Reynolds were formidable, between them inspiring and funding much of the British artistic talent of the late 18th century.

Painted portrait of a man in a gold coloured frame
Portrait of 3rd Duke of Dorset by Reynolds, on display in the Reynolds Room at Knole, Kent | © National Trust
Painted portrait of a man in a gold coloured frame
Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds on display in the Reynolds Room, Knole, Kent | © National Trust

Being a successful artist took much more than just skill – hard work, determination and good connections were also required. One artist that knew this only too well was Ozias Humphry RA (1742-1810). Hailing from a modest family in Devon, just like his hero Reynolds, Humphry was determined to meet Reynolds and make a good impression. Fortunately the impression was favourable enough that Reynolds introduced the young Humphry to the Duke.

In 1773 Humphry stayed at Knole with another artist, George Romney, before they made their way to the coast and off to Italy to study the Old Masters. Correspondence between Sackville and Humphry shows that he was being commissioned to paint a portrait of the Pope, as well as providing a commentary on the great works he was able to view.

Correspondence also shows that Humphry was not shy in asking for favours for his family, as he petitioned Sackville to give the position of Vicar at Seal and Kemsing to his brother William. Whether Sackville was fond of Humphry , or whether it was an act of benevolence, we shall never know, but he agreed and gave his brother the living.

It is possible that Sackville was sympathetic towards Humphry. Throughout his lifetime he commissioned Humphry to paint many miniatures, the genre for which Humphry is most well-known. This included a large commission for a ‘Cabinet of Miniatures’ that would contain copies of Sackville ancestors as well as portraits from life. Sackville also petitioned Lord Salisbury to give Humphry a position at court, which resulted in him becoming 'Portrait Painter in Crayon to the King', with pastels being another medium in which Humphry worked and in which his talent excelled.

Engraved portrait of a man on paper
Charles Sackville, 2nd Duke of Dorset, engraving after Ozias Humphry | © National Portrait Gallery, London

However, it is feasible that Sackville was simply impressed by Humphry’s aptitude. He owned not only his miniatures but works in pastel and history pieces in oil. Sackville also hung a portrait of Humphry (by Romney) at Knole amongst a collection including a self-portrait of Reynolds – a fact that made Humphry burst with pride: ‘My late noble friend, John Frederick, Duke of Dorset, honoured me by placing it among a great number of illustrious characters in his venerable mansion.’

Throughout Humphry’s correspondence there are hints of Sackville’s unwavering support for him, including communication regarding Reynolds' illness. Breaking the news to Sackville that Reynolds may not make it through the night, Humphry didn’t miss the opportunity to request that the Duke do all he could to improve his circumstances, '‘with the utmost possible despatch, or it will certainly be ineffectual’.

Engraving of a man wearing dark coloured clothes
Engraving of Ozias Humphry by Valentine Green after George Romney | © National Portrait Gallery, London

The death of Sackville in 1799 left Humphry without a willing benefactor. The ‘Cabinet of Miniatures’ that had been commissioned some 10 years earlier was not finished. Humphry claimed that the task of painting Lionel, 1st Duke of Dorset, had caused his eyesight to deteriorate to a point where he could no longer work. The Duchess of Dorset, John Frederick’s widow, was keen to buy the 26 completed miniatures but Humphry set too high a price on them, along with a request that the Duchess secure him a position as Commissioner of the Lottery. Politely, but firmly, the Duchess declined. In 1810, Ozias Humphry died having never managed to secure the sale of the Knole miniatures. However, the Duchess eventually purchased them from his son William Upcott.

The history paintings, pastels and some of the miniatures commissioned by John Frederick Sackville are still at Knole, within the more intimate setting of the Sackville Private Apartments. During our Framing Knole celebrations you can see a selection of the miniatures, generously loaned by Lord Sackville, displayed in the Venetian Dressing Room.

Written by Samantha Bailey, Property Curator at Knole, Kent

To read more about the collection of portrait paintings at Knole: Knole's portrait collection