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Joseph van Aken (Van Haecken) c.1699 – 1749
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Joseph van Aken (Van Haecken) c.1699 – 1749

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Two artists sitting at a table with a candle, pipes, tobacco a flask of wine and a sketch-drawing and other papers: here identified as the Van Aken brothers, Alexander, the mezzotint engraver, and Joseph, painter in oils

 

Oil painting on canvas 35 x 49 inches

 

Inscribed on the back of the original canvas “For Mr Ford”. We have not yet traced the identity of “Mr Ford”, though it way well be a reference to the Irish portraitist and engraver Michael Ford (d.1765) who was in London for an extended period before his return to Dublin in 1742, and who is documented as engraving portraits after Hogarth, Cotes, Hudson, Arthur Pond et al..

 

This highly idiosyncratic and interesting composition is reminiscent of a small number of other intimate and relaxed group portraits which were executed around 1740, perhaps most notably Joseph Highmore’s Mr Oldham and his Friends at the Tate Gallery:

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The Highmore shares with the present painting the idea of a narrative moment caught in close-up at a table; more usually in the eighteenth century a longer view point is used, such as in the earlier (1720) picture by Benjamin Ferrers of Sir Thomas Sebright, Sir John Bland and two friends or the somewhat later (1748) Francis Hayman portrait of Thomas Nuthall and Hambleton Custance:

 

All of these pictures share a delightful and relaxed informality far removed from the dull Augustan pomp which suffuses so much of Georgian painting before 1750. They all seem to share the same intimate relationship between the sitters and the artist (indeed, Highmore paints himself as the second figure from the right in that painting).

It seems certain that the two figures in our painting are artists, since the table is strewn with papers which seem to be sketches on blue paper of a female figure subject (? The Three Graces) and a mezzotint portrait in oval. The figure on the right holds a pipe, but this appears to be a pentimento covering a paint-brush; the direct gaze of this subject looks remarkably like a self-portrait taken in a mirror. The handling of the silk and satin drapery is particularly well handled, and it is perhaps this which most suggests that this is a self-portrait by Joseph van Aken, who worked as a drapery painter for most of the major London portrait painters of the day, perhaps most notably Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay, who were executors when he died in 1749. Likewise, the drawing on blue paper calls to mind the technique of the compositional drawings, now in the National Gallery, Edinburgh, which were executed by Van Aken in the 1740’s.

Van Aken was probably born in Antwerp in 1699 and first came to London with his brothers c.1720. Initially he painted genre scenes of a type popularised by J J Horemans. From about 1735 onwards he specialised in painting the drapery for famous and fashionable London portraitists, though occasionally he still produced ravishing conversation pieces of country scenes of a sporting nature.

When he died in 1749 (“of a feavour” according to Vertue) Allan Ramsay and Thomas Hudson, the leading portraitists of the day, acted as his executors, and for whom he worked as drapery painter on very many commissions.

Certainly, the figures in the painting have a strong physical resemblance to known portraits

 

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Thomas Hudson (1748) : Alexander van Aken 1701-1758 (NPG) Composition engraved by Thomas Faber II, and sold by J. Jarvis in Bedford Court, Covent Garden. A companion piece of his brother Joseph was also painted by Hudson in about 1748. It was formerly in the collection of John Lane, whence it was sold at Sotheby's (1/7/1925 (117) and subsequently in the collection of Sir George Sutton Bt., but its present location is unknown. It, too, was engraved in mezzotint by Faber:

 

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J Faber after T Hudson: Alexander van Aken and Joseph van Aken (dated 1748 and c.1748).

 

The Hudson portraits were executed only a year or so before Joseph's death in London in 1749 aged about 50. The portrait of Joseph is unusual in Hudson's oeuvre as being a frontal composition: his usual rule was half or three-quarters profile. It was strong echoes compositionally of the present double portrait, which we may surmise was its inspiration. In both paintings, the sitter rests his arm on the a canvas: in the mezzotint the front of the canvas is seen; in the present painting the stretcher (strainer) is shown. Both the sitters in the present painting are perhaps a decade younger than they appear in the Hudson paintings, pointing to a date of about 1740 or the late 1730's. The facial features, allowing for a decade's aging, are reproduced: the deep dimple in the chin, the rotund features, the profile of the nose are all very much alike. Most tellingly, the right eye of the sitter in the present portrait seems to have a slight squint: whilst the left eye looks directly at the beholder, the right eye is canted a little to the sitter's left. This accords with George Vertue's eye-witness account of the artist's appearance: “a man of good complexion, a round fat face and shortish stature, a small cast with one eye” (Notebooks, III p.150; Walpole Society 1933-4 Vol XXII),