Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of the Dean of Raphoe

Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of the Dean of Raphoe

Nat Williams tells the stories behind the Library's treasures

Joshua Reynolds’ name is synonymous with grand portraits carefully crafted to flatter wealthy English aristocrats. Even considering Reynolds’ prodigious output, I was surprised to find a painting in our collection purporting to represent a well-known English cleric. The Very Reverend James King was Dean of Raphoe in Ireland and Chaplain to the House of Commons and Canon of Windsor. Given Reynolds’ central role in creating the cult of celebrity, which still persists today, this is a rather unglamorous view of a well-respected servant of the church, whose son was the celebrated mariner of the same name who voyaged with Cook. At a glance, Captain James King would seem, perhaps, to be a more likely figure to be memorialised by Reynolds.

Painting of James King, Dean of Raphoe, 1781

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of James King, Dean of Raphoe, Ireland, 1781, nla.obj-134312828

The portrait was acquired in 1967 together with an oil of Captain James King painted in 1782 by his associate, and fellow Cook voyager, John Webber. An attempt to track down the provenance of the King paintings led to the same door: 7235 Sycamore Trail, Hollywood, California, the home of an Edward J. King. This information was revealed on our accessions register and, to glean more information, I had to make connections around the world.

First, I turned to the remarkable Joshua Reynolds catalogue raisonné. This fastidiously produced 1,200-page book was assembled by David Mannings and Martin Postle and published in 2000. Sure enough, the painting of Dean King was listed and it seemed, from notes in Reynolds’ pocketbooks listing sittings and appointments, that he met with Dean King on numerous occasions. Reynolds charged his friend 50 guineas for the 1781 commission. The entry also said that its whereabouts was ‘Untraced’. So, was our portrait of Dean King, the missing Reynolds?

In searching, I discovered a portrait of King’s wife, Anne. Painted by Reynolds’ pupil, James Northcote, in 1789, the work is held in the Huntington Library collection. The painting was the same size as our Reynolds portrait, which seemed fortuitous. Placing the portraits of wife and husband together, they worked as a pair. The fact that Anne King’s portrait was in a public collection in California, 25 minutes from Hollywood, was also intriguing. I sought the opinion of Angus Trumble, Director of the National Portrait Gallery and an expert on eighteenth-century British art. We reviewed the portrait onsite and discussed the 1878 manuscript note that had been found tucked into the back of the canvas. This note, apparently outlining the King family provenance, is initialled, possibly, ‘EK’—could it have been ‘Edward King’, a descendant? Given the strong circumstantial evidence and after a thoughtful review of the painting, we came to the conclusion that the portrait was probably a Reynolds.

Through a colleague at the Huntington Library, I then established that the 1962 donor of its Northcote portrait was also our Edward J. King, definitely a descendant of the King family. Dean King had five sons, all of whom became prominent in their fields of endeavour. The name Edward was carried through the generations down to Edward J. King of Hollywood. Finally, we received a response from Martin Postle, who felt that the painting was genuine and was pleased that we had finally found it. In only a few days, we had solved a mystery. With Captain King on display in the Treasures Gallery, it would be good, after 50 years, to publicly reunite father and son, in the knowledge that their wife and mother, Anne, is safely in the hands of the Huntington Library across the Pacific, the vast body of water in which her son acquitted himself so admirably.

Nat Williams is the Library's Treasures Curator. The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund.