Francis Basset, I Baron of Dunstanville1778. Oil on canvas, 221 x 157 cm.
This full-length portrait by Pompeo Batoni shows a young English nobleman dressed in a scarlet coat, posing against the Roman countryside. The picture conforms to the Grand Tour portrait model of which Batoni, together with other artists such as Anton Raphael Mengs, became a leading practitioner, attaining success particularly among British patrons. Here the sitter is holding a walking stick and a tricorn hat in his right hand; his left arm rests gracefully on a marble pedestal decorated with an Antique basso-rilievo, and in his left hand he holds a copy of Giambattista Nolli’s Nuova Topografia di Roma (1748) - drawn in chalk over the oil paint and subsequently varnished. On the ground to the left lies a fragment of an ancient marble frieze frequently seen in other paintings by Batoni, while in the background are St Peter’s Basilica and the Castel Sant’Angelo, which recur in his portrait of Emperor Joseph II and his brother Leopold I, 1769 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The same composition and elements of the landscape are found in earlier portraits by Batoni.
This painting, however, is the only known example in which the low-relief group of Orestes and Electra, derived from the Roman sculptural group now at the Palazzo Altemps, Rome, is depicted in reverse. This painting is of outstanding quality and is considered to be the last portrait of this size to be wholly painted by Batoni. The sitter is Francis Basset (1757-1835). He was from a wealthy family linked to Tehidy Country Park in Cornwall, where they owned copper and tin mines that recorded great profits. Orphaned at an early age, Basset became the sole heir of the family’s fortune. He was educated at Harrow, Eton, and King’s College, Cambridge, and in the spring of 1777 set off on a Continental Grand Tour in the company of his tutor, the Reverend William Sandys. Basset must have posed for Batoni during his Roman sojourn from December 1777 to May 1778. Batoni would have been well paid, given that the commission involved a full-length image and the production of a replica. As Father John Thorpe noted in a letter to Lord Arundell in 1774, cited by Edgar Peters Bowron, Pompeo works only for those who pay him most and at the same time he is meanly raising his price.
The portrait came to Madrid on board the Westmorland, a British merchant ship laden with works of art acquired by several young British noblemen during their Grand Tours. It arrived unframed with another portrait of Basset by Batoni, also unframed. The latter, a half-length portrait of smaller size with significantly different composition, remained at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, where it is still found today. In both portraits we find Batoni’s signature and date: Pompeius de Batoni. Pinx Romae 1778.
It was common practice for Batoni to produce copies of his works, and around thirty examples of double versions within the artist’s oeuvre are known. However, the issue of how much of the copy was actually painted by Batoni and how much by his studio depended on the particular client. In general, the second version was executed by the studio, and particularly after 1760 these replicas were largely painted by assistants (Sánchez-Jáuregui, M. D.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain´s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 270).