The British demand for portraiture increased rapidly in the eighteenth century as members of the wealthy middle class became art patrons in their own right. Arthur Devis was a provincial artist who came to live in London, where sophisticated portraitists of the upper class such as Reynolds and Gainsborough dominated the art world. Devis received commissions from the middle-class landowning families, merchants, and officials who lived in smaller cities outside London.
This informal portrait is a conversation piece, a genre favored by Devis. The figures, while full-length, are relatively small and are placed somewhat back in the landscape; the background is larger and more detailed than in traditional portraiture and describes the subjects' personal and social context.
Devis devised a repertoire of postures and gestures that he used to express the social status of his sitter. Arthur Holdsworth, governor of Dartmouth Castle, is shown seated, an alert, attentive expression on his face. The ship sailing into the mouth of the River Dart in the background may be a reference to the Holdsworth family's trading business. Holdsworth's brother-in-law, Thomas Taylor, stands behind him in riding clothes. The third man is Captain Stancombe.
lower center: Arth: Devis fe 1757 [the last digit almost illegible]
Painted for Arthur Holdsworth [1733-1777], Mount Gilpin and Widdicombe House, Kingsbridge, Devon; by descent to Captain Frederick Holdsworth; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 22 April 1921, no. 2, bought in); by descent to his sister, Mrs. Cuthbert Lucas; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 6 November 1959, no. 71, repro.); (Thos. Agnew & Sons, London); sold 1960 to Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Painting in England 1700-1850, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1963, no. 224, pl. 71.
- The Conversation Piece: Arthur Devis & His Contemporaries, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1980, no. 36, repro., (cat. by Ellen G. D'Oench).
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist, repro.
- Pavière, Sydney H. The Devis Family of Painters. Leigh-on-Sea, 1950: no. 69.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 130, repro.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 61-63, color repro. 62.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 143, repro.
The medium-weight canvas is plain woven; it has been lined. The ground appears to be white, of moderate thickness. The painting is executed thinly and very fluidly resulting in a smooth surface texture; there are minimal brushmarks and no impasto. There are scattered retouches chiefly in the sky; the entire canvas has a quarter-inch band of retouching at the edges. The moderately thin natural resin varnish has not discolored.