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I don’t think I stand alone in suspecting that the large-scale, severe portrait paintings of historical figures found in great numbers throughout private and public collections in the UK fail, at times, to excite a visual or intellectual response from the viewer. Of course, I am not talking about historical portraiture as a genre, to which some of the most enigmatic paintings in the history of art belong, but about those dusty, larger-than-life paintings featuring ugly men in wigs with names and professions that no longer hold any meaning for the average present-day viewer.

The full-length portrait of Dr Richard Mead (1673–1754) in the Foundling Museum, painted by the Scottish painter Allan Ramsay, comes dangerously close to falling into that category.

Vast in size, the painting shows an elderly bewigged sitter dressed in academic robes, posed portentously among classical sculpture and scarlet hangings. Fit to burst out of his brown buttoned-up undercoat, the seated figure gestures towards a letter beside two large volumes bearing the words ‘To Dr Mead’. While there is no doubting the technical brilliance of the picture, I suspect that the standardised composition and iconography do not invite contemplation beyond a quick once-over from most viewers.

I first came to know of the painting while working as a volunteer at the Foundling Museum. The work had recently made its return to London from the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow, where it had been on loan for the exhibition, Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment, which ran from 15 September 2013 to 5 January 2014. I’m ashamed to admit that my initial response to this information was surprise that someone had paid to have that huge canvas shipped up to Scotland and back again in order to include it in their exhibition. I had to be missing something. Perhaps it was worth looking beyond the wig, and trying to understand the significance of the painting’s presence in its permanent location, as well as the need for it to be included in an exhibition about the artist that had painted it.

Richard Mead was a leading London Physician who was court doctor to Charles II and helped to establish the Foundling Hospital, later becoming a Hospital Governor and medical consultant. This explains the painting’s place in the Foundling Museum collection, to which the portrait was donated in 1747. It is fitting that Mead should be remembered in the form of a painting, rather than any other kind of memorial, for he was an important patron of the arts and amassed a collection of paintings, drawings and antiquities impressive enough for one contemporary to describe it as his great ‘Temple of Nature and Repository of Time’. Mead was one of the first English collectors to own works by Guercino, and the catalogue for the auction of his collection that took place after his death records two paintings by Watteau (one of which is The Italian Comedians, c.1720, National Gallery of Art, Washington), possibly commissioned directly from the artist. As well as befriending Watteau, Mead associated with the luminaries of the day, including the scientist Edmund Halley, the poet Alexander Pope, and artists William Hogarth and Allan Ramsay, who would attend the dining club hosted at his Great Ormond Street home. For a young artist like Ramsay, Mead was a good contact to have. Rich and well connected, Mead introduced him to Grand Tour Society and provided exposure for his portraits, having commissioned an initial portrait from him in 1740 prior to the Foundling Museum one, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Mead was clearly someone that enjoyed being portrayed; a total of 9 portraits of him in various mediums are found in the NPG, while the main repository of his portraits is in the Royal College of Physicians, where a marble bust by Roubiliac is conserved, commissioned after Mead’s death by fellow physician and collector, Dr Anthony Askew. 

Knowing something of Mead’s life, his interest in the arts, particularly in his artist contemporaries, and significant contribution to medicine enables us to reflect differently upon Ramsay’s portrait. The uncompromising figure in the portrait is endowed with a personality and a history, which in turn imbues the painting with added meaning. Meanwhile, knowledge of the numerous other portraits of Mead provides a sense of the network of relationships that made up the collector’s social circle, as well as an iconographical context for the present painting.

So the next time you come across one of those intimidating, sombre portraits of an unknown historical figure, why not stop and wonder whether there is more to the sitter than initially meets the eye.

Amanda Hilliam