James Turner and George White were beggars and it might seem odd that they should have been immortalised in works of art by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Nathaniel Hone, the elder. In actual fact they were used by some of the greatest painters of the eighteenth-century as artist’s models, a nice side-line which supplemented their income derived from begging on the London streets and as casual labourers.
James Turner, with his long white hair and flowing beard and his wise, wrinkled and well-lived-in face was painted in miniature by Nathaniel Hone the elder in 1750. He was reputedly 93-years old and was paid one shilling per hour for his services to the artist, ‘which he asserted he always got by his profession of begging’.
Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property in Cambridgeshire holds a miniature of an unknown man which is catalogued as possibly being an earlier miniature of James Turner by Nathaniel Hone.
After James, Hone and his great rival Sir Joshua Reynolds both used another beggar in their work, George White. Reynolds used him as the thirteenth-century Italian nobleman, Count Ugolino (featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy) in his 1773 depiction of the count and his children, starved to death.
George White, a Yorkshireman, became one of Reynold’s favourite models. He was discovered by the artist while working as a casual labourer, laying paving stones.
Old George… owed the case in which he passed his latter days, in great measure to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who found him exerting himself in the laborious employment of thumping down the stones in the street; and observing not only the grand and majestic traits of his countenance, but the dignity of his muscular figure, took him out of a situation to which his strength was by no means equal, clothed, fed, and had him, first as a model in his own painting room, then introduced him as a subject for the students of the Royal Academy.
In winter White would return to Yorkshire as ‘coals be cheap in the north, and warmth be the life of an old man’.
George White also appears in a portrait named Pope Pavarius (a pun on White’s former profession as a street mender or paviour) by Joshua Reynolds.
Nathaniel Hone too used White in his painting, The Pictorial Conjurer displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception.
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons (1820) – which does admittedly mix up James Turner and George White – has this to say of The Conjuror.
Some difference existing between Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Hone, the latter, in revenge, painted the figure of an old man, with a magic want, conjuring from the flames various designs from old masters, which Sir Joshua had taken for models of some of his best pictures; and had afterwards destroyed the originals. On the death of Mr Hone, in 1784, the whole of his collection of paintings, prints, and drawings, were sold by auction, at Hutchins’ rooms, in King-street, Covent-garden, when the picture of the Conjuror was purchased for sixty guineas, by an agent of Sir Joshua’s, and consigned to the same destructive element that had consumed the old masters.
Sources not mentioned or linked to above
Lowell Libson Ltd, 2015
Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait; National Portrait Gallery, London