Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hoppner, John
HOPPNER, JOHN (1758–1810), portrait-painter, the son of German parents, was born in Whitechapel, London, on 4 April 1758. At an early age he was a chorister in the royal chapel, and George III made him a small allowance to enable him to commence his studies as a painter. His mother is said to have been one of the German attendants (some accounts say lady in waiting) at the palace, and the interest which George III took in the boy favoured the suspicion that it was fatherly. As George III had not completed his twentieth year when Hoppner was born, and did not occupy the palace till he ascended the throne two years afterwards, the scandal would not be worth mentioning but for the statement that Hoppner encouraged it, and the fact that it does not appear to be quite dead yet (see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. vol. xi. 21 June 1873). In 1775 he was admitted a student at the Royal Academy, in 1778 he gained a silver medal for drawing from the life, and in 1782 the gold medal for an original painting of a scene from King Lear. In 1780 he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy. His address in the catalogues of the exhibition for this and the following year is ‘at Mr. Chamberlaine's, North Audley Street;’ but in 1782 it is ‘at Mrs. Wright's, Cockspur Street, Haymarket.’ In this year he married the youngest daughter of this Mrs. Wright (Mrs. Patience Wright, 1725–1786 [q. v.]), an American lady celebrated for her portraits modelled in wax, for her social qualities, and her patriotic ardour. At her house Hoppner probably associated with many eminent men of the day, as it was frequented by Garrick, Foote, Dr. Dodd, Sir Benjamin (then Mr.) West, Benjamin Franklin, &c. In 1784 he was settled at 18 Charles Street, St. James's Square, close to Carlton House, where he remained till his death. In 1785 he exhibited portraits of the youngest three princesses, Sophia, Amelia, and Mary, and in 1786 one of ‘Mrs. Jordan in the character of the Comic Muse, supported by Euphrosyne, who represses the advances of a Satyr.’ The latter picture was also probably a royal commission, as it is now at Hampton Court. In 1789 he was appointed portrait-painter to the Prince of Wales. In 1792 he was elected an associate, and in 1795 a full academician. Sir Joshua Reynolds was now dead, and Romney declining. Hoppner's only rival was Sir Thomas Lawrence, who, though his junior by seven years, had been elected an academician, and appointed portrait-painter to the king in 1792. Hoppner and Lawrence now divided the favours of high society; if the latter had the advantage as painter to the court, Hoppner was favoured by the beauties of Carlton House. According to Allan Cunningham ‘the factions of Reynolds and Romney seemed revived in those of Hoppner and Lawrence,’ and he adds that Hoppner painted the whigs. But he painted tories also, and their rivalry was mainly professional. It, however, was keen and not free from bitterness on the side of Hoppner, who exclaimed against what he considered the impropriety of Lawrence's portraits of ladies. As rivals they were well matched, as both were handsome men, of fine address, and polished manners. Hoppner had also wit and humour, and was a brilliant talker. The rivalry was only ended by Hoppner's death, for Lawrence wrote in 1810: ‘You will be sorry to hear it, my most powerful competitor, he whom only (to my friends) I have acknowledged as my rival, is, I fear, sinking to the grave—I mean of course Hoppner.’
Hoppner remained popular and prosperous to the last. Among his numerous sitters were the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York (full-lengths of whom, with others of Lord Nelson and Lord Rodney, are in the state apartments of St. James's Palace), the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of Kent (at Windsor Castle), members of the Mornington family, including the Duke of Wellington (when Lieutenant-colonel Arthur Wellesley), two of his brothers, and Lady Culling Eardley (a group of this lady and her children, one of which she carries pickaback, is, though unfinished, one of his finest works. It belongs to the present Duke of Wellington); the Countesses of Darnley, Carysfort, Aylesford, and Harewood (when Mrs. Lascelles); the first Lord St. Vincent and Sir Ralph Abercromby; the Archbishop of York (William Markham) and Shute Barrington, bishop of Durham; the statesmen Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning, Frere, and Grenville; Robert Bloomfield, the poet, Mrs. Inchbald, Sir Philip Francis, and William Gifford; William Smith, the actor, and Richard Humphreys, the pugilist; Mrs. Gwyn (Goldsmith's ‘Jessamy Bride’), and Mrs. Draper (Sterne's ‘Eliza’). He never exhibited anywhere except at the Royal Academy, where he sent 168 pictures between 1780 and 1809 (both inclusive). These were mostly portraits, but he sent, especially in his earlier years, an occasional picture of the fancy, such as ‘A Primrose Girl’ (1780 and 1785); ‘Jupiter and Io’ (1785); ‘Belisarius’ (1787); ‘A Standard Bearer’ and ‘A Nymph’ (1788); and ‘A Bacchante’ (1789). One of the best of these, called ‘A Sleeping Nymph,’ was bought by Sir J. Leicester (Lord de Tabley), and was sold at his sale in 1827 for 472l. 10s. Between 1797 and 1803 he published, with Charles Wilkin [q. v.], the engraver, a ‘Select Series of Portraits of Ladies of Rank and Fashion;’ ten plates, seven after Hoppner, and three after Wilkin, who engraved them all (see Art Journal, 1886, p. 54). He also attempted verse with small success in a volume of ‘Oriental Tales translated into English Verse’ (1805).
Hoppner was always a great lover of nature, and began by painting landscape, his great taste for which is seen in the backgrounds to his portraits and the numerous sketches in chalk with which he amused his leisure hours. There are several of these in the print room of the British Museum.
It has been said that Hoppner was ‘the most daring plagiarist of Reynolds, and the boldest rival of Lawrence,’ and this expresses with some approach to accuracy his position as a portrait-painter, if it does not give him the credit he deserves. Without the marked individuality of either his senior or his junior, of whom alternately his works remind us, he is more manly than Lawrence, and, especially in his portraits of women and children, more simple and natural. Many of his pictures have suffered from the use of destructive mediums, but the public appearance in late years of a few of his best works in good condition has much improved his reputation. Such pictures as the group of ‘Lady Culling Smith and children’ (belonging to the Duke of Wellington), and the fine portrait of ‘Mrs. Lascelles’ (belonging to Lord Harewood), which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1876, enable us to understand the reputation enjoyed by Hoppner as a colourist at once brilliant and mellow. His drawing was faulty and his execution slight.
Hoppner died 23 Jan. 1810, and was buried in the cemetery of St. James's Chapel in Hampstead Road, London.
[Gent. Mag. 1810; Annual Register, 1810; Redgrave's Century of Painters; Redgrave's Dict.; Bryan's Dict. (Graves); Graves's Dict.; Cunningham's Lives (Heaton); Somerset House Gazette, i. 358; Seguier's Dict. Encyclopædia Britannica; Catalogues of National Gallery, South Kensington Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Special Exhibitions of National Portraits on Loan to the South Kensington Museum, 1867 and 1868, Royal Academy, &c. For remarks on Hoppner's technique see especially Redgrave's Dictionary, Redgraves' Century of Painters, Seguier's Dict., and Chesneau's English School of Painting.]