This attractive half-length portrait of a lady is typical of the artist’s work. The sitter is seated almost in profile in front of a blue curtain, dressed in a ruffle-fronted white dress and headdress. Downman believed that contemporary fashion should be recorded and preserved in portraiture. Unlike many earlier portraitists, he did not depict his sitters in standard or studio costumes, instead the sitters wore their own clothes and thus the portrait served as a form of snapshot of a particular fashion and period within the sitter’s life.
John Downman was born in Ruabon, North Wales, in 1750. His father, Francis Downman, was an attorney and his mother, Charlotte Goodsend, was the daughter of the private secretary to George I. After studying in Liverpool for a short period, Downman moved to London in 1769, where he enrolled to study as one of the first thirty-six pupils at the Royal Academy under the tuition of the prominent figure Benjamin West, the president of the institution at that time. He exhibited his work at the Academy for the first time in 1770 before setting off in 1773 for a two-year tour of Italy in the company of the famous portraitist Joseph Wright of Derby.
The artist returned to England in 1775 and spent some time working as a portraitist in Cambridge and Exeter before moving back to London in 1779. Downman and his contemporaries Hugh Douglas Hamilton and Henry Edridge had much commercial success producing small intimate likenesses, which had an elegant lightness that perfectly captured a growing taste for sentiment in portraiture. By around 1780, Downman had devised a method of working in chalks and watercolours, which allowed him to capture a likeness within a short sitting, from which he could easily reproduce a number of copies. The small intimate scale of the works made them an appropriate form of keepsakes for family and loved ones and Downman’s works were declared to be ‘universally admired and sought after by the first people of rank and taste’ (Morning Post, 4th of May 1786). He soon gained the patronage of some of the most esteemed figures of the day, including the Duchess of Devonshire and the Royal Family.
Downman was elected an associate Royal Academician in 1795 and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1819. In his later life he moved to Wrexham in Devon where he died in 1824. A large number of his works are kept in the British Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where an exhibition of his work was held in 1996.
– Lloyd, S. and Sloan, K. (ed.), The Intimate Portrait: Drawings Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence, London, (2008).