Thomas Sprat, Bishop of Rochester (c.1635–1713) and his son Thomas (1679–1720)

This mezzotint by John Smith (1652-1743) demonstrates how successful portrait compositions were used again and again by generations of artists. The print is after a painting by Michael Dahl dated 1712 (now in the collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford). It portrays Thomas Sprat, Bishop of Rochester and his son, also called Thomas. Establishing which man is which is simple: the father, the more prominent figure of the two, is on the right, in three-quarter length view, seated in a grand high-backed chair. He faces the front and gestures with his right hand to his son, who is seated on the left behind the small table and so only shown half length. The son is holding an open book, from which he has presumably been reading. He does not look out towards the viewer; instead his head is turned towards his father.

This portrait type derives from a long tradition of double portraits, with one of the sitters being a distinctively ‘lesser’ figure, i.e. a secretary, clerk or – in this case – son of the main personage. An interchange is established between the two figures, posed in such a way as to demonstrate a master-subordinate relationship. So even though the pictures are double portraits, the main figure is still a centre of focus for the composition. One of the earliest examples of this type of double portrait is Sebastiano del Piombo’s (1485-1547) Cardinal Carondelet and his Secretary (1511-12, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). This perhaps inspired Titian's portrait of Cardinal Georges d'Armagnac and his secretary Guillaume Philandrier (1536-38, Alnwick Castle, Duke of Northumberland), which in turn provided the model for Anthony Van Dyck's (1599-1641) portrait of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford with his secretary, Sir Philip Mainwaring (private collection). An unfinished painting in the Fitzwilliam’s collection by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) of Strafford's descendant, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham with his secretary, Edmund Burke ( 653, Gallery 3 ), follows this line of double portraits.

John Smith was the most successful mezzotint artist of his time, achieving wealth and widespread reputation within his lifetime. He was an astute businessman, running a profitable print establishment. He realised he could make a good profit not only by selling prints singly, but by offering complete collections of his works, as this would appeal to wealthy collectors. He engraved nearly 300 portrait prints, as well as numbers of ‘subject’ prints and he also published mezzotints engraved by other artists, see the August 2008 Portrait of the Month.

See also the mezzotint by Richard Houston after a painting by John Shackleton of Henry Pelham with his secretary, John Roberts P.10426-R

Museum Number P.11025-R

Please note that the locations referenced are correct as of 1st December 2008. If you are visiting the Museum to see a specific object please contact us to check that it is on display on the day you plan to visit

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