John Downman

John Downman (1750 – 1824) was a Welsh portrait and subject painter and draughtsman, mainly of portraits.

He lived mainly in London, but he travelled widely about the country, often staying in great houses while he produced a series of portraits of members of the family. There is a large collection of his portrait drawings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Downman is thought to have been born near Ruabon, Denbighshire, the son of Francis Downman, attorney, of St Neots, and Charlotte (née Goodsend, eldest daughter of the private secretary to George I); his grandfather, Hugh Downman (1672–1729), had been the master of the House of Ordnance at Sheerness. The Downman family is usually known as a Devonshire one, but the exact connexion between the artist and the Devonshire branch has not been traced. He was educated first at Chester, then at Liverpool, and finally at the Royal Academy schools, and was for a while in the studio of Benjamin West.

He was a pupil of Benjamin West, before becoming part of the first intake of students at the Royal Academy in 1769.

Downman set off in 1773 with Joseph Wright of Derby, a pregnant Ann Wright and Richard Hurleston for Italy. Their ship took shelter for three weeks in Nice before they completed their outward voyage in Livorno in Italy in February 1774. Downman returned to Britain in 1775.

After his return to England he became a leading fashionable portraitist. His success depended partly on his speed of work, and from the 1780s he relinquished oils in favour of a distinctive technique that enabled him to produce portraits in great quantity, using black chalk lightly tinted with watercolour.

He settled down for a while in Cambridge (1777), eventually coming to London, where he contributed to various art exhibitions. In 1804 he moved to the village of West Malling in Kent. In 1806, Downman visited Plymouth in the West Country, between 1807 and 1808 he practised at Exeter, afterwards working in London for some years, settling at Chester in 1818-19, then finally moving to Wrexham, where his only daughter married and where he died on 24 December 1824. He left a large collection of his paintings and drawings to his daughter. He was also the father of Sir Edwin Downman.

He exhibited 148 works in the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1819, mainly portraits, but often fancy subjects, such as ‘Rosalind,’ painted for the Shakespeare Gallery; ‘The Death of Lucretia; The Priestess of Bacchus;’ ‘Tobias;’ ‘Fair Rosamond;’ ‘The Return of Orestes;’ ‘Duke Robert,’ etc. In 1795 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy.

His first work at the Royal Academy (1769) was A small portrait in oil,’ and the last (1819), A late Princess personifying Peace crowning the glory of England reflected on Europe, 1815. In 1884 the trustees of the British Museum acquired, by purchase, a volume containing numerous coloured drawings by Downman, among which were several portraits, now separately mounted. He also left several volumes of exquisite drawings, executed in red and black chalk, of which Ralph Neville Grenville published a catalogue (Taunton, 1865). He also painted some miniature portraits. Engravings were also made by Bartolozzi and others. Many of his portraits have attached to them remarks of considerable importance respecting the persons represented.

Oriental Woman, Holding a Torch 1806 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Robert, Duke of Normandy, in Prison 1779 Yale Center for British Art
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furie 1781 Yale Center for British Art
Portrait of a Woman with a Blue Sash 1791 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Mrs. George Mills 1783 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Portrait of a Woman in Profile 1791 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
An Unknown Man 1780 Yale Center for British Art
George Mills 1792 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Old Lady with Magnifying Glass Los Angeles County Museum of Art