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Bath's Holburne Museum Acquires Artist William Hoare's Masterpiece
William Hoare, "The Pitt Family of Encombe".

LONDON.-The Holburne has acquired for its Collection a painting by the celebrated 18th century artist William Hoare. The acquisition of a superb portrait "The Pitt Family of Encombe" has been made possible through a grant from independent charity The Art Fund, the generous help of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Beecroft Bequest, the Friends of the Holburne, David Posnett in memory of his mentor Harold Leger, and a private donor.

When the Holburne re-opens to visitors in 2011, "The Pitt Family of Encombe", painted by Bath ’s foremost painter at the time, William Hoare, will join old favorites by Gainsborough, Ramsay and Stubbs in the Museum’s spectacular collection of 18th century British portraits.

Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund said: “It is entirely fitting that this accomplished portrait of a well-known Dorset family by an esteemed local artist be housed in one of Bath ’s finest museums. William Hoare thought highly of this work and I’m very pleased that The Art Fund has been able to help bring it back to Bath .”

Amina Wright, Curator of Fine Art at the Holburne, said: “In its Georgian heyday, Bath was second only to London as a center of cultural excellence, and we are delighted that this important and beautiful work by one of Bath’s most famous artists of the time will be back in Bath for everyone to enjoy when the Holburne re-opens in 2011.”

MP for Bath, Don Foster, said: “This acquisition of this portrait painting for the Holburne Museum is wonderful news and further strengthens the Museum’s outstanding collection of local art. I would like to pay tribute to all those organizations and individuals involved in funding it. I look forward to visiting the portrait in its new home and am sure that Bath residents and tourists alike will derive great enjoyment from it.”

William Hoare ‘of Bath ’ (1707-1792) dominated the spa town’s artistic life from around 1740 to 1780. Like Thomas Gainsborough, he was born in Suffolk , but had the advantage of nine years’ study in Rome , as well as influential patrons among the intelligentsia of London and Bath . With his brother the sculptor Prince Hoare, William quickly found a niche in the growing Bath market for luxury goods, gaining prestigious commissions to paint the leading political and literary figures of his day, many of whom came to Bath to recuperate. Hoare and his studio so dominated Bath’s market for oil paintings in the third quarter of the 18th-century that they continued to prosper even after the arrival of the younger and more innovative Gainsborough in the late 1750s.

Although the Holburne already has a good collection of works by Hoare, including drawings, oil paintings and pastels, none is as fine or as important as this splendid portrait of a Dorset family. Dated c. 1761, it depicts John Pitt of Encombe House in Dorset, who came from a long line of Dorset and Berkshire gentry and was a distant cousin of the Prime Minister (and MP for Bath) William Pitt the Elder. In the portrait, which remained in the family collection until the 20th-century, he is pictured with his Irish wife Marcia whom he married in 1752, and their first child William Morton Pitt, born about two years later.

William is seen still wearing an infant’s frock, while his mother wears a soft, informal gown, loosely laced and with the hem of the skirt pinned up to reveal the petticoat beneath. This unusual arrangement of the robe suggests that the artist may be drawing attention to the sitter’s pregnancy, as she had three children between 1757 and early 1759 but only one, Marcia, survived. This portrait must date from that period, when William Morton Pitt would have been four or five. Stylistically, it shows that Hoare was a follower of fashion rather than an innovator: the bright, fresh colours recall the work of Van Dyck, and the graceful arrangement of the figures, the husband and wife placing their hands together like a couple of dancers, is drawn from Van Dyck’s celebrated portrait of the Herbert family (1635), which Hoare probably saw at Wilton House.

This is one of Hoare’s best portraits and the artist himself must have thought highly of it. He was a founder member of the Society of Artists, and this was the first painting that he chose to send to the Society’s exhibition in London, in 1761. The same exhibition included another painting sent from Bath, Thomas Gainsborough’s first contribution to the Society of Artists. Gainsborough’s exhibit, the full-length portrait of Robert Craggs Nugent, is now on long-term loan to the Holburne, so the first two exhibition pieces by these two friendly Bath rivals will be reunited in our own galleries after exactly 250 years.

Since purchasing the portrait, the Holburne is delighted to have acquired an oil sketch almost certainly made as a compositional study for The Pitt Family. This rough little painting on a scrap of canvas about 19 x 17 cm (7½ x 7”) uses the same composition and colors as the final version, except that the porticoed building appears on the left of the image rather than the right, between the mother and her child.

Hoare probably moved the building to the right in his later version so that it would stand behind the father of the family, John Pitt, who was interested in architecture and may even have designed this building. The masculine classicism of the portico contrasts with the more feminine greenery seen behind Mrs. Pitt in the final version. However, the fact that the building could be moved about with such ease suggests that it may have been an imaginary one, rather than one of the famous garden temples of Encombe. The sketch has been generously donated by Jacob Simon.

The Pitt Family of Encombe will be on display at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester from January 2010.

The Art Fund | The Holburne | William Hoare | Andrew Macdonald |

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