Vertue, George (DNB00)

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VERTUE, GEORGE (1684–1756), engraver and antiquary, was born, of Roman catholic parents, in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, in 1684. His father is said to have been a tailor. He was apprenticed to a Frenchman who was at the time one of the chief heraldic engravers in London, but who shortly afterwards became bankrupt and returned to France. Vertue then worked for seven years with Michael Van der Gucht [q. v.], and in 1709 established himself independently. Being recommended to Sir Godfrey Kneller [q. v.], he was employed by him to engrave some of his portraits; and when that painter instituted an academy in 1711, Vertue became a member, and drew there assiduously. A portrait of Archbishop Tillotson, after Kneller, for which he received a commission from Lord Somers, and a head of George I, which he produced immediately after the accession of that monarch, confirmed his reputation; and throughout his career he had constant employment as an engraver of portraits, his plates of that class, many of them frontispieces to books, numbering over five hundred. They are all faithful transcripts of the originals, and many of them have considerable artistic merit. In 1730 he issued a set of ‘Twelve Heads of Poets;’ and when the brothers Knapton projected their folio edition of Rapin's ‘History of England,’ published in 1736, they engaged him to execute the plates, and upon these he was occupied for three years. For the same publishers he engraved some of the portraits in Birch's ‘Heads of Illustrious Persons;’ but in this work he was superseded by Houbraken, whose more brilliant but less truthful productions were preferred to his. From an early period Vertue was ardently devoted to antiquarian research, and by his incessant and conscientious labours in this field he has earned enduring fame. Obtaining the patronage of the Earl of Oxford, Lord Coleraine, and other noblemen of similar tastes, he travelled in their company through many parts of England, visiting the great country houses and other places of interest, and making careful notes and drawings of everything of artistic and antiquarian value that he met with, and his engravings of these subjects are almost as numerous as his portraits. On the revival of the Society of Antiquaries in 1717 he became a member, and was appointed its official engraver, in which capacity he executed nearly all the plates published in ‘Vetusta Monumenta’ down to 1756, including the portrait of Richard II at Westminster, the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and a view of Waltham Cross. From 1723 to 1751, all the Oxford Almanacs, with one or two exceptions, were designed, and engraved by Vertue, who introduced views of the colleges and incidents connected with their foundation. In 1740 he commenced his valuable series of nine ‘Historic Prints’ from paintings of the Tudor period, which included the ‘Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Blackfriars’ (miscalled the ‘Procession to Hunsdon House’); ‘Henry VII and his Queen, with Henry VIII and Jane Seymour;’ ‘The Cenotaph of Lord Darnley;’ and ‘Edward VI granting a Charter to Bridewell Hospital.’ The original copperplates of these were purchased after his death by the Society of Antiquaries, and republished by them in 1776; they were again reprinted more recently. In 1741 Vertue lost his great patron, the Earl of Oxford; but he found others in the Duchess of Portland, the Duke of Norfolk (for whom he engraved the large plate of the Earl of Arundel and his family, after Van Dyck), and Frederick Prince of Wales, who employed him in cataloguing the royal collections, and purchased many of his works. One of his latest undertakings was a set of ten plates of Charles I and the sufferers in his cause, each plate containing two portraits, with characters taken from Clarendon and other authors. Vertue died on 24 July 1756, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, where there is a mural tablet to his memory. His wife, Margaret Evans, to whom he was married in 1720, survived until 1776. His collections of coins, prints, &c., were sold by auction in May 1757. During the last forty years of his life Vertue was industriously gathering materials for a history of the fine arts in England; and the invaluable series of notebooks in which he set down all the information he could obtain respecting English artists of all periods, including his own, were purchased from his widow by Horace Walpole, who compiled from them his ‘Anecdotes of Painting in England.’ The volumes passed at the Strawberry Hill sale to Dawson Turner [q. v.], and are now in the British Museum.

Vertue published ‘A Description of the Works of Wenceslaus Hollar,’ 1745 (reprinted 1759); and ‘Medals, Coins, Great Seals, Impressions from the Works of Thomas Simon,’ 1753 (reprinted 1780). He transcribed and prepared for the press Vanderdoort's catalogue of the collection of Charles I, and that by Chiffinch of the collection of James II; these, together with his own catalogue of the works of art belonging to Queen Caroline at Kensington, were printed after his death, with prefaces by Walpole.

A portrait of Vertue, painted by Gibson, 1715, belongs to the Society of Antiquaries, to which it was presented by his widow; there is a scarce engraving of it by himself. Another, at the age of fifty, by Jonathan Richardson, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was engraved by Thomas Chambers for the first edition of Walpole's ‘Anecdotes.’ A profile head, drawn by Richardson, was engraved by Basire for Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes.’ A drawing by himself, showing him seated in a library, holding a miniature of the Earl of Oxford, was engraved by G. T. Doo for the 1849 edition of Walpole's ‘Anecdotes,’ and there is also a lithograph of it published in 1821. A drawing of Vertue and his wife, standing together, done by him on their wedding-day, has been etched by William Humphrey. Vertue had three brothers, one of whom, Peter, became a dancing master at Chelmsford; another, James, practised as an artist at Bath, and died about 1765. A view of the interior of Bath Abbey, drawn by him, was engraved by his brother George.

[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, ii. 246; Chester's Westminster Abbey Reg.; Dodd's manuscript Hist. of English Engravers in Brit. Mus. (Addit. MS. 33406).]

F. M. O'D.