Circa 1830 England

After Thomas Gainsborough (circa 1830) A Portrait of James Keith (born 1741)


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Height 37 inches (94 cm)
Width 32 inches (81.5 cm)
Depth 2 inches (5 cm)

After Thomas Gainsborough (circa 1830)

Portrait of James Keith (born 1741)

Oil on canvas; held in a period giltwood frame.

Provenance: By descent to the sitter’s daughter Sarah, who married John Dixon MD and by descent in the Dixon family until 2013; private collection, Dorset, England until 2022

Literature: Hugh Belsey ‘Thomas Gainsbrough’ catalogue raissone, 2019, vol.1, p.506, no. 532a

This important copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait, when discovered in 2013, enabled precise identification of the sitter for the first time in over two hundred years. It is a spirited rendition of the original work displaying much character and verve and has been endorsed by Gainsborough authority Dr Hugh Belsey on first-hand inspection of the painting and is included in his catalogue raissoné of the artist.

The original was recorded as being in the collection of the artist and antiquary William Young Ottley from 1833 and was claimed to be a portrait of his father Richard Ottley. This identification largely remained unchallenged, though doubt was cast in the 1920s. The portrait presented here was thoroughly labelled in the 19th century and when sold in 2013 with other family pictures by a descendent of the sitter, art historians were finally able to correctly catalogue the Gainsborough original as depicting James Keith, illegitimate son of Field Marshal. Hon James Francis Edward Keith (1696-1758)

The sitter’s father, James Francis Edward Keith was a Scottish soldier and Generalfeldmarschall in the Prussian army. As a Jacobite he took part in an attempt to restore the Stuart monarchy to Britain and when this failed, he fled to Europe, living in France, and then Spain. He joined the Spanish and eventually the Russian armies and fought in the Anglo-Spanish War and the Russo-Swedish War where he participated in the conquest of Finland becoming its viceroy later being involved in the coup d’état that put Elizabeth of Russia on the throne. He subsequently served in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, where he distinguished himself in several campaigns. He died during the Seven Years War at the Battle of Hochkirch. It was during his time in Finland, 1741-43, that he met and fell in love with Eva Merthen (1723-1811) who gave birth to their son James Keith around this time.

Little, to date, is actually known of James Keith himself but he had a daughter, Sarah, who went on to marry Dr John Dixon MD and they had a son John Keith-Dixon (1788-1854). Gainsborough painted James’s portrait in the early 1780s it being in his daughter’s possession by 1830 when William Young Ottley seems to have purchased it and this copy was executed. We know this as the canvas suppliers mark for 1830 is on the reverse and by 1833 Ottley exhibited the original in London as being of his father Richard.

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