Sir James Clark Ross, 1800-62

(Updated, October 2020) This painting was acquired at auction in 1938 from the collection of the publisher Sir Robert Harmsworth (d. 1937) with the received identification of John Ross (1777-1856) but comparisons made in 2019-20 more convincingly suggest it his nephew, James Clark Ross. It shows the sitter apparently in civilian dress of the 1820s wearing a fur-collared cape loosely round his shoulders, the yellow flashes to the left probably being the metal chain fastening. John Ross would have been 50 in 1827 and while he also had strong features, they were not the almost aquiline good looks of his nephew (who was 27 in that year), with whose other portraits this one compares well: see for example BHC2979, BHC2981 and the 1848 portrait by Pickersgill now in the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge (formerly NMM BHC2980). Even later in life James had the same fine head of hair, worn fairly long as shown here. The greater likelihood of the sitter being James has in fact been raised before in notes on the back of a 1961 NMM photograph in the National Portrait Gallery. This also holds a much earlier one of January 1913 on which notes suggest the painting was then in possession of a 'Mr Chatto'. This is likely to have been the publisher Andrew Chatto (who died that March) and had an interest in astronomical and related scientific matters, or possibly one of his two sons.

These points re-emerged in an Art UK discussion in 2019-20, which also considered the ongoing problem of artist identification. Previous considerations of Raeburn (who died in 1823) have now been dismissed as not in his late style, and also suggestions of John Watson Gordon and John Hayter. Three more promising possibilities are John Simpson (also first suggested as possible at the NPG in 1961), Andrew Geddes - who like the Rosses, Raeburn and Gordon was Scottish - or perhaps George Hayter, but the matter remains open.

The obvious deficiency in the painting of the sitter's left eye, compared to the rest of the image, also needs further investigation. It may be a consequence of the picture not being fully finished, as the thin painting of the lower part of the cloak collar also indicates. Dating is also significant, since both James Ross and his uncle John were in the Arctic from 1829 to 1833. John Wildman's portrait of James, (BHC2981) marking his return as discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole, shows an apparently more mature and hardened face, so the present one is likely to have been painted before he went. That is even more probable if it is by Simpson, who from 1834 spent a period working for the Portuguese court in Lisbon. Simpson had been a principal assistant to Sir Thomas Lawrence, however, and this image - which has elements of his bravura - might be one still incomplete when Ross sailed in 1829 and for some reason not finished after his return.

Object Details

ID: BHC2982
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: British School, 19th century
Date made: circa 1812-18 [or circa 1820-30 if the latter]; circa 1812-18 circa 1815-20 circa 1825-29 circa 1825-30
Exhibition: North-West Passage
People: Ross, John
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Frame: 965 mm x 840 mm x 120 mm;Painting: 760 mm x 635 mm

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