Powell was a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery for many years. In Dance, he returns again and again to portraits, which not only show a family’s history, status, and taste, but also provide a glimpse at the history of British art.
The pictures in the Walpole-Wilson house are mostly ancestral portraits, like an Admiral attributed to Zoffany. [BM 186/177]
Johan Zoffany (German 1733-1810) painted in Britain after 1760 and helped found the Royal Academy. He was known for his theatrical scenes, ‘conversations,’ and views of eighteenth century British life. In 2012 the Royal Academy collaborated with the Yale Center for British Art in an exhibition, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed , which emphasized Zoffany’s talent as an observer and interpreter of society.
Zoffany’s portrait subjects included King George III, so his portrayal of a Walpole-Wilson ancestor illustrates the prestige of the family. We have not been able to find an Admiral, but this Major is the type of portrait that the Walpole-Wilson’s might have displayed. In 2009 this work was offered for auction from the collection of Gianni Versace; however, the family of Major Maule reclaimed it as a stolen family heirloom.
The collection is brought into the twentieth century by a portrait of Lady Walpole-Wilson’s father by Isbister. We already know Powell’s creation, Horace Isbister, R.A. from his portrait of Templer’s father. Earlier in BM [94/87], Widmerpool, whose ignorance of art is prodigous, praised Isbister’s portrait of Cardinal Whelan, while popular opinion favored his portrait of the wife of the Solicitor General.
The invention of photography in the mid nineteenth century changed portrait painting; there was less demand for representational portraits, leading to a proliferation of more experimental portrait strategies in the twentieth century. Isbister managed to avoid the change. His painting conveyed “the impression that at any moment Lord Aberavon, depicted in peer’s robes, would step from the frame and join the company below him in the room.” (This is the same Lord Aberavon, whose taste in art led him to purchase Mr. Deacon’s Boyhood of Cyrus.) As an approximation of the imaginary portrait, we offer this early twentieth century painting by another Academician, Reginald Eves (1876-1941), of another peer in robes to convey Isbister’s dedication to a realism that many Modern portraitists would abandon.