John Philip Kemble
Channelling some of the intensity of his thespian persona, the Shakespearean actor John Kemble (1757–1823) appears here on the verge of speaking. A sense of tense energy permeates his portrait, not least in the entwined fingers of his tightly clasped hands. The dashes of white light on his shiny coat buttons lead the eye up to his illuminated face and serious gaze. The vertical expanse of his coat hints at a tall and imposing physique, while his small wig, worn over his own powdered hair, sits above full sideburns, framing his face against the dark background to give the impression of him leaning forward, out of the picture plane. Portrayed without the costume and theatrical trappings of his profession, Kemble would none the less have been a recognisable face in Georgian society. As a famous celebrity of his day, he had made a name on the stage alongside his sister, the tragic actress Sarah Siddons (1755–1831), and brother, Charles Kemble (1775–1854), also an actor. John Kemble’s statuesque stage presence was ideally matched to his acting style. His talent for effusive rhetorical speaking, exemplified in his most celebrated roles as Hamlet and Coriolanus, followed the vogue in Georgian theatre for emotional dramatization. Kemble was a friend of the founders of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Francis Bourgeois (1753–1811) and Noël Desenfans (1745–1807), and was reputedly responsible for suggesting Dulwich as a suitable home for the Bourgeois collection of paintings.
This portrait was commissioned by Desenfans from the British society portraitist, William Beechey (1753–1839). Having fallen into the company of students from the Royal Academy, Beechey gave up a career in law to pursue painting instead. He arrived on the art scene in London after the death of the leading portrait painter, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), winning society commissions and quickly becoming a favourite at the royal court. He was appointed portrait painter to Queen Charlotte (1744–1818), and earned himself a knighthood from King George III (1738–1820) in 1798. It was at this time that he was completing the portrait of Kemble. Desenfans wrote to Beechey to congratulate him on his knighthood and added ‘I hope as soon as you are at leisure you will go on with [the] Kemble portrait, so that I may have to boast I possess the first picture of Sir William Beechey.’ Desenfans appears to have been keen to supplement the collection of Old Masters with works that would bring a little contemporary, celebrity cachet.