National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 8, 1984-1985

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Henry D. Thielcke: A recently Found 
Portrait and some Reflections on 
Thielcke's Links with the English School

by Ross Fox

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6

In 1981 the National Gallery of Canada acquired a portrait by Henry Daniel Thielcke (c. 1788 / 89-1874) of such calibre as to offer an altogether new insight into the nature of Thielcke's artistic accomplishment (fig. 1). (1) By itself, the painting is sufficient to excite a reassessment of this little-studied artist. In a broader art-historical perspective, it also constitutes a superb example of the overt transmission to Lower Canada of current English taste, of a semi-sophisticated order, in large-scale portrait painting.

Much of both Thielcke's life and his oeuvre remains unknown. Gérard Morisset has written the only significant passages on this artist, though misleadingly calling him a "peintre arméricain." (2) Foremost an English artist, in the latter half of his life Thielcke passed about two decades in Lower Canada and another two in the United States.

Of presumed recent German ancestry, Thielcke was born at St. James's Palace about 1788/89. (3) His father is thought to have been the "Thielche" who was a groom of the bed-chamber to His Majesty George III. His mother was a woman of the bed-chamber to Queen Charlotte. They are mentioned in the diary of Lady Charlotte Bury (1775-1861) as having a son who was a miniaturist. (4) Henry Daniel Thielcke did paint portrait miniatures throughout much of his life, in addition to history paintings and large portraits, and he was an engraver as well. Also, for many years he kept ties with personages in the royal entourage, and at least from 1805 until 1813 his address was the Queen's House (later known as Buckingham Palace), by that time the principal residence of the royal family. (5)

Thielcke would seem to have had the benefit of an advantageous training. Records show that he entered the British Academy Schools on 4 January 1806, when seventeen years of age; he is said also to have been a pupil of Sir Thomas Lawrence. (6) Thielcke exhibited with some regularity at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1805 unti1 1816, in which body he held the rank of Perpetual Student, and at the British Institution in 1811, 1815, and 1816. (7) Outside these passing mentions, little is known of his artistic formation and early work.

The British Museum is in possession of several engravings by Thielcke from his early period: (8) the best known is a portrait of Queen Charlotte, published 2 December 1818 by Colnaghi & Co. just after the queen's death on 17 November (an impression of this engraving is also in the McCord Museum, Montreal; fig. 2). Made after a portrait painted by Henry Edridge in 1814, the engraving has been simplified and abbreviated, with full attention given to the three-quarters-length figure (the queen was shown full-length in the original painting). (9) Thielcke also painted Queen Charlotte; in the early part of this century there was a canvas by him in the royal collections at Frogmore House, in which he borrowed the pose of Edridge, substituting a new setting and attire. (10)

Of the several other painted portraits by Thielcke that are documented from his English period, only one concerns a sitter from the royal entourage. It is "The Rev. Mr. Kuper,"
which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807: (11) William Kuper, D. D., was chaplain to George III and later to Queen Adelaide. It can be surmised that other portraits of a comparable patronage must have been executed, through Thielcke's connection with the Duchess of York.

In the lower right corner of his engraving of Queen Charlotte, Thielcke designated himself "Portrait Painter to HRH the Duchess of York" - a title that he made much use of, especially in his later Canadian years. The date of his entry into the service of the duchess is uncertain, but it seems he retained this appointment until 1820, when she died. Thielcke's supposed German heritage and his proficiency in the German language could only have been assets in that regard. Princess Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina (b. 7 May 1767), Duchess of York, was the eldest daughter of Frederick William II, King of Prussia. In 1791 she married Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III and Queen Charlotte. Their marriage was not especially blissful and, typical of the times, there were recurrent whisperings of paramours and improper conduct (detractions that were, however, endemic to persons of their station).

The princess demonstrated a strong partiality for privacy, as she spent much of her life in seclusion at her country estate of Oatlands Park, Surrey, where she devoted herself to the care of innumerable pets. Joseph Farington records in his diary on 8 June 1794:

A fire happened at Oatlands yesterday which damaged some of the art buildings. The king had been there, and brought back a little dog belonging to the Duchess of York, who seemed more anxious abt. her animals than abt. the house. She has 18 dogs. The king observed that affection must rest on something. When there were no children animals were the objects of it. (12)
Little would seem to have changed by 1818, when another visitor wrote:
The Duchess's life is an odd one; she seldom has a female companion, she is read to all night and falls asleep towards morning, and rises about 3; feeds her dozens of dogs and her flocks of birds, &c., comes down two minutes before dinner, and so round again. (13)
Thielcke's association with the Duchess of York gives one some idea of the artistic milieu in which he must have worked. Two other artists are known to have been in the service of the duchess: Henry Bernard Chalon (1771-1849) and William Marshall Craig (active 1786-1828).

Next Page | Chalon favoured by royalty and aristocrats

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