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Hugh Douglas Hamilton
1739–1808

Christopher Norton

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Medium
Pastel
Size
10 ½ × 9 inches · 266 × 228 mm
Notes
Inscribed bottom right ‘P. Byres’
Drawn 1782
Collections
  • James Byres of Tonley; recorded in the 1790 inventory of Byres' house, Strada Paolina, Rome, as in the writing room;
  • Patrick Byres of Tonley, and by descent;
  • Christie's, London, 22nd November 1977, lot 108;
  • with Colnaghi, London.
Literature
  • Francis Russell, 'Batoni's Mrs Sandilands and other portraits from the collection of James Byres', Burlington Magazine, CXX, 1978, pp. 114-17, fig. 77;
  • Brinsley Ford, 'The Byres Family', NACF Review, 1984, p. 115;
  • Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists, online edition.

This pastel portrait depicts one of the leading figures of Grand Tour Rome, the dealer and antiquary Christopher Norton. Made by the Irish painter and pastellist Hugh Douglas Hamilton shortly after his arrival in Italy, it was paired with a portrait of Norton’s business partner, and latterly brother-in-law, James Byres and is recorded hanging in Byres’ house in Rome as early as 1790. Finely executed in coloured chalks on a piece of buff paper, Hamilton’s lively, intelligent portrait suggests his intimacy with Norton. The portrait confirms that Norton and Byres acted as his agents in Rome, procuring for him commissions from major travellers of the period, such as Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry.

Norton was described by Thomas Jones as the ‘Partner or coadjutor’ of James Byres, he assisted him in his activities as cicerone, dealer and exporter.[1] It was in this capacity that Norton first collaborated with Byres, producing a series of illustrations of Etruscan tombs for a proposed publication on early Italian history. Despite interest from subscribers, the manuscript was never completed and Norton’s plates were not published until 1842.[2] It was in this capacity that Norton first collaborated with Byres, producing a series of illustrations of Etruscan tombs for a proposed publication on early Italian history. Despite interest from subscribers, the manuscript was never completed and Norton’s plates were not published until 1842.[3] Based on drawings by the Polish artist Franciszek Smuglewicz, they survive as a valuable record of archaeological sites now lost.[4]

In 1786 Norton is recorded living with Byres at his house on the Strada Paolina, now the Via Due Macelli, although he was almost certainly based there earlier; two group portraits by Franciszek Smuglewicz of the Byres family dating from the late 1770s include Norton standing on the far right.[5] Norton and Byres developed a lucrative and highly effective commercial model; wealthy tourists visiting Rome for a short period could rely on the pair to provide every conceivable service, from organising accommodation to supplying antiquities and old master paintings and arranging their shipment back to Britain. This system also allowed Norton and Byres to exercise immense power over resident artists who were keen to attract commissions from British visitors on their Grand Tour.

The landscape painter Thomas Jones was a keen recorder of the nuanced etiquette which governed the British artistic community in Rome. Jones described the tradition by which Byres and Norton and their rival, the British dealer Thomas Jenkins held rival celebrations on Christmas Day for the artists under their protection and noted a painter was expected to: ‘present a Specimen of his abilities to his Protector, for which he received in return an antique ring or a few sechins - these specimens were hung up in their respective Rooms of audience for the inspection of the Cavaliers who came.’[6] In July 1773 Thomas Banks complained to Nathaniel Smith that: ‘little Wickstead has had most of the portraits to paint last season, owing to the efforts of Messrs Norton and Byres to carry every gentleman they could get hold of to see him.’[7] Norton and Byres expected a sizeable commission for these introductions; when Thomas Jones failed to produce what was expected, Norton confronted him.[8] An inventory of the house on the Strada Paolina in which Byres and Norton lived corroborates Jones’s observation; the principal rooms were filled with the works of artists that they sponsored.[9] These included paintings by the Irish landscape painter Solomon Delane, a “view of the Ponte Molli” by Jacob More, “a girl reading” by Philip Wickstead, drawings by Louis Ducros and Henry Fuseli and portraits by the Polish painter Franciszek Smuglewicz, by Nathaniel Dance, Pompeo Batoni and Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

In 1790 Hamilton portraits are listed in the ‘Writing Room. Do Mr Probert. Do of Miss Probert from Hamilton. Do of Mr Norton & James Byres by Hamilton (100 crowns)’. The portrait of James Byres is now in the collection of Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen but seems not to have been conceived as a pendant. Byres is shown seated, his head resting on his hand looking to the left, Norton, by contrast, is looking confidently out at the viewer.

The portrait was probably made shortly after Hugh Douglas Hamilton arrived in Rome in 1782. Carefully and finely rendered, this portrait was made shortly before Hamilton began to produce the great sequence of full-length pastel portraits which distinguish his time in Rome. It is likely that many of these commissions were brokered by Norton and Byres and that the presence of such an impressive and characterful pair of portraits in Byres’ house would have commended him to travellers.

On his return to Britain Norton cemented his position within the Byres household by marrying Janet Moir, daughter of Byres’s sister in 1792. Norton and his wife lived with Byres at Tonley, leaving at his death in 1799 all his ‘pictures, paintings and drawings of what nature of kind so ever, and also all…rings and trinkets’ to James Byres.

References

  1. Ed. Paul Oppe, ‘The Memoirs of Thomas Jones’, The Walpole Society, 1946-1948, XXXII, p. 94.
  2. James Martin: MSS jnl: Journal of James Martin in Italy, 1763-5, 9 vols. Priv. coll. v. 6, 21 Sept. 1764.
  3. D. Ridgeway, ‘An Eighteenth Century Aberdonian in Italy: James Byres of Tonley and the Etruscans’, The Deeside Field, Aberdeen, No. 19 (1987) pp. 124-130. Norton’s plates were published in: F. Howard, Hypogaei, or Sepulchral Caverns of Byres Esq. of Tonley, Aberdeenshire, nearly forty years Antiquarian resident at Rome prior to 1791, London, 1842.
  4. S. Steingräber, Etruskische Wandmalerei, Stuttgart-Zurich, 1985 (nos. 46, 56, 113, 54, 87) and W. Dobrowolski, ‘The Drawings of Etruscan Tombs by Franciszek Smuglewicz and his co-operation with James Byres’, Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie, 1987, 19, pp.97-119.
  5. Archivio del vicariato, stato delle anime, s. Lorenzo Lucina, 1786: ‘Strada Paolina verso le Greci, Monsu Giacomo Bajer Pitte, Monsu Noro.’ The two group portraits by Franciszek Smuglewicz of James Byres and his family see  B. Ford, ‘James Byres Principal Antiquarian for the English Visitors to Rome’, Apollo, 99, 1974, pp.452-453. 
  6. Ed. Paul Oppé, ‘The Memoirs of Thomas Jones’, The Walpole Society, 1946-1948, XXXII, p. 94.
  7. C.F. Bell, Annals of Thomas Banks, Cambridge, 1938, p.16. 
  8. ‘Norton at length told me in plain terms, that I had used him very ill…[Norton] said he ‘you did not receive the Money for Mr Yorke’s Commission, through Mr Byres hands which is always customary for Pictures that are consigned to his Care.’…These & such Incidents made me hurry my Departure.’ ‘The Memoirs of Thomas Jones’, The Walpole Society, 1946-1948, XXXII, p. 94.
  9. For the contents of Byres’s house see ‘Inventory of the Furniture in the House of Mr James Byres at Rome’, Byres/Moir Papers, National Library of Scotland.