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

Bulletin 20, 1972

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Portraits of a Young Hero: 
Two Versions of Robert Field's 
"Portrait of Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis"

by Barry Lord  

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

Brighton's report that the portrait in Wallis' home represented Sir Provo's father "when a young man" was patently wrong. The elder Wallis, Provo Featherstone, had been Chief Clerk to the Commissioner of the Naval Yard in Halifax. It is true that a Provo Wallis is mentioned in Admiralty letters as being a master shipwright in the Naval Yard in New York between 1776 and 1780; (9) but even if one could prove that this Wallis was in fact Provo Featherstone, one would be confronted with the fact that Field, undoubtedly the author of the painting, was not in the United States until after the American Revolution, from 1794 until 1808. There were other facts to militate against the identification. The elder Wallis would not have been wearing the uniform of a naval lieutenant. Nor would a portrait of the elder Wallis by someone other than Field, painted some twenty years before that of his son (which is dated 1813), have caused Dr Brighton to draw the close comparisons he does. One possible explanation for Brighton's misinformation is that Sir Provo William Parry Wallis, a knight-admiral and "grand old man" by the time of his interview with Brighton, might have found it convenient to say that the second portrait represented his father early in life, in order to claim a more esteemed ancestry. 

A second portrait of the younger Wallis (fig. 4) and what may well be a portrait of the elder Wallis (fig. 5) have subsequently been discovered. In the summer of 1968, thanks to a Canada Council grant, I was able to go to England in search of the missing "original." Although the quest was not immediately successful, I eventually found two portraits in the possession of the Reverend P. A. M. Edlin of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. Both match the National Gallery portrait in dimensions (30 x 25 in. [76.2 x 63.5 cm]), and in signature and date (R. Field 1813). The present owner's grandfather, the Reverend G. M. Norris, a nephew of Wallis, inherited them from his uncle. He then bequeathed them to Reverend Edlin's uncle, the Reverend F. G. M. Norris, who in turn willed them to his nephew. Throughout the years they have been known as portraits of Sir Provo and his father. (10)

The Edlin portrait (fig. 4) is clearly the one from which both the wood-engraving (fig. 2) and the New Brunswick Museum's painting (fig. 3) were made. The inclination of the head, the youthfulness of the face, the shape of the ear, the locks of hair on the forehead, the folds and disposition of the shirt-front, the arrangement of buttons, and, most significantly, the raised left arm - all have their source in this painting. The background is remarkably similar in colouring to that in the National Gallery's portrait; so too is the treatment of light - the shadow on the collar, the glare along the fringes of the epaulette, and the highlights on the forehead and nose (see figs. I and 4). Wallis, however, appears a younger, more spirited hero - his hair whipped by the wind, his body in motion. The portrait lacks the gravity and mature expression of the one in the National Gallery (the chin and especially the muscles around the mouth are given less distinctive character). Perhaps the Edlin work was painted directly from life, before the more official and somewhat more monumental portrait was painted. On the other hand, it could have been done after the National Gallery's portrait was completed, as a personal memento for the sitter.

Whatever their order of composition, these two versions are undoubtedly the paintings Brighton compared so closely in the Admiral's home shortly before 1892. The reason for their separation - and how the National Gallery version came to appear in a sale in 1917, without correct identification - we may never know for certain. Ottawa's painting may have been sold directly from the estate; or it may very well have passed to the Admiral's widow's family, whose descendants today remember the sale of an important painting during the First World War, while its owner was at the front in France. The owner's absence might explain how the Ottawa painting came to be associated merely with the name on the box it was found in. Another descendant is said to have sold off a ware-houseful of paintings about 1920. (11)

The other painting in the Reverend Edlin's possession is a portrait that also looks convincingly as if done by Field, a picture that does appear to represent Sir Provo's father, not "when a young man" but as he might have looked in 1813 as Chief Clerk of the Halifax Naval Yard (fig. 5). The background is a conventional light brown, brighter to either side of the figure, and with a shadow in the lower left. The modelling, the treatment of light falling on the facial features, the handling of paint, and details such as the articulation of the ear - all confirm Field's authorship at about this date. The painting is, in fact, closer to the National Gallery's portrait in tone and spirit than to the Edlin version with which it now hangs. The pose of the father, with his right arm sloping down to the lower left corner of the picture, makes it a perfect pendant for the Ottawa version of the son, whose left arm slopes to the lower right corner. This pendant relationship might explain the more mature features of the lieutenant in Ottawa' s version, painted to show the family resemblance of the hero to his father. Perhaps the Ottawa version was adapted from the Eldin painting later in 1813, to "match" the father's portrait. 

All three paintings show Field at the height of his powers as a portrait-painter. "Probably Field's best production in oil," Piers said of the National Gallery's version of the lieutenant. (12) The two newly-discovered portraits may not challenge this estimation, but they do enrich our appreciation of the artist at this point in his career. Field's debt to Sir Joshua Reynolds, as Russell Harper has observed, is evident in full-length portraits like that of Sir George Prevost in Halifax; (13) but in his head-and-shoulder and half-length portraits, and particularly in these three paintings, he suggests a greater affinity with the painting of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Born in 1769, Lawrence was precisely of Field's generation, and first came to public attention with his portrait of Queen Charlotte done in 1790, the year when Field was studying engraving at the Royal Academy Schools in London (14) Four years later Field was to leave England never to return, so that the influences that he was exposed to during this brief period before 1794 were definitive.

Of course Field was not Lawrence. His colour seldom has as much spirit, and his work as a miniaturist, done along the American seaboard, appears to have left him with a hand more meticulous and probing than adventurous. But the commission to paint the portrait of a dashing young native-born hero of the moment, and his proud father, demanded of him his best qualities as a painter. Giving full rein to his romantic sensibility, he posed his officer before a turbulent sky, hair fashionably tousled; colour and light are imaginatively treated, with a sense of the drama of the occasion. The father reflects the admired traits of the son, with the added sobriety that came with age and with his administrative position. In all three pictures Field manages to imbue the sober realism demanded of the portrait-painter in North America with an enlivening touch of the freshness of the early romantic spirit. We sense the gracious restraint of their lives, their ideal of courage, and the confidence of these early Haligonians in their ability to defend and maintain their naval city. He also gives us an admirable record of one of Canada's first naval heroes. 

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