A Miniature Portrait of Elizabeth Campbell by John Smart

John Smart, Elizabeth Campbell, 1787. Watercolour on ivory, 5.7 cm high. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

In an article published last month, I wrote about John Smart’s portrait of his daughter Anna Maria, generously given to the nation by the artist’s descendants. This was the first 18th-century British portrait miniature to enter the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, and we decided to add another example to broaden the representation of this important art form.

Smart (1741–1811) was one of the leading miniaturists of his day, who left behind a successful London career to practice in India. Like Smart’s miniature of Anna Maria, this second portrait dates to his time in Madras (now called Chennai), where he lived between 1785 and 1795. Madras was the location of a sizable European settlement and an important base of the East India Company. The part-private, part-public corporation led British colonialization of the subcontinent during this period of near-constant conflict between the Indian and European powers. Many British artists worked in India, drawing their clients from Europeans living there, as well as the Indian elite. Art played a small but significant role in a complex web of colonial ventures, violence, trade and exchange across the globe. Smart's work is a product of, and valuable witness to, this period in India.

Born in London, Elizabeth Mackay (1759–1801) lived in Madras from at least 1776 onwards, part of a substantial Scots presence there. The following year she married Dugald Campbell, a captain commanding a cavalry regiment of the East India Company Army; he later served one of Smart's patrons, Muhammad Ali Khan, ruler of nearby Arcot. The couple moved between England and India over the next few decades, while also living apart for substantial periods of time. Spouses often commissioned pairs of portrait miniatures, and this work will have served as a keepsake for the husband – the whereabouts of the corresponding portrait of Dugald intended for Elizabeth is unknown.

Elizabeth is shown in the height of fashion, her hair lightly tinted pink (one contemporary beauty recipe suggested the use of rose petals). Such elegant simplicity of dress and demeanour was valued; the trend arose from a sense of the artificiality of much of society’s codes, a feeling widely shared in the 18th century. She appears slightly more approachable and less haughty than many of Smart’s sitters. Her smoothly painted face contrasts with the more broadly handled hair and clothing, making it the focus of the viewer's attention. The flesh is painted with extraordinary refinement and skill, and there is a sense that the figure could somehow be enlarged to life size without losing resolution.

Back of the miniature’s mount. At centre, a lock of Elizabeth Campbell’s hair surrounded by locks of her children’s hair arranged by year of birth (in clockwise order): JC (James); DC (Dugald); WCC (William Coote); JC (John); MC (Margaret); AHC (Archibald Henry); EC (Elizabeth); and CC (Charles). Photo: NGC

Miniatures were often set in elaborate mounts that, at this time, could include a lock of the sitter’s hair – a token that made the portrait all the more real and personal. This example is particularly poignant: a lock of Elizabeth’s hair is surrounded by locks from the Campbell's eight surviving children, each identified by initials. The current mount must have been added or modified in England, where Elizabeth was living after the birth of their last child in 1791. The intervention maintained the work’s relevance, and Dugald Campbell will have cherished this memento of his wife and family when he returned, alone, to India. Despite of their size, such miniatures are powerful works, intimately tied to past lives.

 

A Note on Ivory: In the 18th century, portrait miniatures came to be painted on thin pieces of elephant ivory, replacing the parchment – animal skin – used previously. Today, elephants are endangered due to poaching and loss of habitat, and the trade in works incorporating ivory is regulated by national and international law. To preserve our heritage, these laws make exceptions for historical art works. Interest in these historical works does not encourage poaching: while elephant ivory was once an important medium in European art, it is no longer used.

 

See also the article on John Smart's daughter Anna Maria, published last month. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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