Paulus Pontius (1603–1658)
James Watson (1740-1790) - not to be confused with his contemporary, the London-born Thomas Watson (1748-1781) - was one of a number of talented Irish printmakers who arrived in London during the second half of the eighteenth century. Others were Thomas Frye (famous for his series of twelve life-size portrait heads), James McArdell (who was Watson’s tutor), Richard Houston, Richard Purcell, Edward Fisher and John Dixon. All of these artists worked in the mezzotint technique. Watson was capable of achieving levels of great delicacy and precision in the medium, for an example see the veil in the portrait of Lady Janet Erskine after Allan Ramsay P.284-1947. This period was an important time for printmakers in a battle for recognition and status. From 1760 engravers had the opportunity to exhibit their prints at public exhibitions. In 1770 Watson was on the committee of directors for the Society of Artists. For a time the Society operated as a rival institution to the Royal Academy, which had restrictions on engravers joining its ranks.
Watson engraved plates mainly after Joshua Reynolds as well as other contemporary painters, though he also reproduced paintings by the Flemish Old Masters Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony Van Dyck, illustrated by the example shown here. It was common in this period for printmakers to work in partnership with a painter, a practice which had continued from the late seventeenth century. Van Dyck’s successor Peter Lely and also Godfrey Kneller routinely worked with print publishers to market mezzotint prints after their portrait paintings. By Watson’s time, however, the printmakers were more independent and played more of an active role. Printmakers and print publishers were confident in the saleability of prints after Van Dyck’s paintings, since his paintings were already in many of the country’s collections and the painter’s reputation was highly regarded.
This mezzotint is after Van Dyck’s painted portrait of the engraver Paulus Pontius (Israel Museum, Jerusalem). Pontius was a highly skilled printmaker who worked in the studios of both Rubens and Van Dyck. He is portrayed half length with his head turned to the right looking out beyond the picture frame, while his left hand gestures across his body to the left. He wears a cloak draped over his right shoulder over a doublet with slashed sleeves. The bold stripes in the doublet contrast against the delicate lace detail at the cuffs and collar. The print is dated prior to 1767 by Gordon Goodwin, who in 1904 published a catalogue raisonnée of the work of Thomas Watson, James Watson and his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Judkins.
Well over a century before Watson’s mezzotint, Van Dyck produced an etching after the same painting (P.2761-R). The result is very different: while Watson has attempted to reproduce a painting, Van Dyck has not. Etching, which is a line technique, is severely limited when it comes to producing areas of tone. However, the mezzotint technique, which was invented after Van Dyck’s lifetime, could reproduce much more accurately the tonal ranges of an oil painting. In the case of Van Dyck’s painting of Pontius, Watson was able to achieve the intense black background and also the velvety texture of the sitter’s clothing, which Van Dyck could not do in etching. As mentioned above, the mezzotint technique had developed in Britain as an ideal way of reproducing painted canvases. In the eighteenth century it was admired above engraving for the “softness and delicacy” of its painterly effect. Printmakers at this time extended the range of the technique, using it to reproduce paintings by Old Masters. Richard Houston engraved mezzotints after Rembrandt, as did McArdell, though he also reproduced Rubens and Van Dyck (see P.10559-R).
Watson also engraved in mezzotint another portrait after Van Dyck which was published by John Boydell in the ‘Houghton Gallery’ series. Boydell (1719-1804) was the leading print publisher in London from the 1750s. It is due to his clever marketing of prints that British painters became known in Europe. Between 1778 and 1788 he published a series of 162 prints commonly known as ‘The Houghton Gallery,’ after paintings at Houghton Hall, a collection formed by Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745). The extravagant lifestyle of Walpole’s grandson, the 3rd Earl, meant that the pictures had to be sold. The purchaser of a large number of the paintings was the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, though not all of the paintings remain in Russia today. Forty-five printmakers worked on many high-quality prints engraved after paintings in this collection. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s painting of Archbishop Laud by Van Dyck (2043) is not the canvas that Watson saw at Houghton: this is the version now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. For the print albums of the Houghton Gallery, see 31.K.7 & 31.K.8.
Anthony Van Dyck’s etching of Pontius is on display in the exhibition Changing Faces: Anthony Van Dyck as an Etcher 17 February - 24 May 2009 Charrington Print Room (Gallery 16)
Museum Number P.11262-R