Dance, Dance, Dance; all night long

There are two well known paintings portraying Capability Brown, created by different artists at different times. Or were they?

The Nathaniel Dance original has been at the National Portrait Gallery since 1989, acquired from a descendant of Brown. A painting derived from it has been there for a good deal longer, and it is interesting to compare the two; the copy (or rather, the “after Dance”) more finessed and considered, but less lively as a result.

The work by Richard Cosway is well known as it is the image of the Tercentenary campaign. It portrays a different Brown, with less coiffure, more natural; less formality.

These are my two core works for the posthumous head of Brown. After examining the Dances in the cellars of the NPG in December 2015, I started to consider the information I had before me for the reconstruction. I could discount the “after Dance” as it offered no more secondary evidence than the original. It is one step further removed from my sitter. But the Cosway was interesting. It appeared to yield no more formal information than the Dance, and indeed, on superimposing the two images, it was clear the sitter was at exactly the same angle to the painter. Perhaps his best side, but with 360 degrees to choose from, a curious find.

See what else emerges as photographic images of the two works are overlaid, after a slight tilting of one of the images, in this short film:

The limiting factor of this hypothesis is that we are creating overlays by superimposing images which are factored to each other; we have no absolute sizes to compare. The Cosway original is in the USA, but distances from pupil to pupil could easily now be taken from each painting to explore the anomalies further.

Could we being led a further merry Dance?

What was Cosway up to?  Indeed, is the Cosway really a Cosway?

Another interesting observation is that – admittedly from consideration of Cosway web imagery only – there are similarities in the qualities in – and handling of – the paint in the Cosway and the NPG’s “after Dance”.

An interesting debate to be had in this tercentenary year. In the meantime, my sitting with a Lancelot Brown look-alike takes place next week. My eyes will be considering the man then for his merits alone, but the result may additionally fill in gaps in our Brownian evidence – with those of a Northumbrian nature.

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