In December 2015, the British Academy’s portrait of Founding Fellow Sir Richard Jebb underwent some conservation work. The canvas had undulations in the corners of the painting and bulges in the central area of the work. Polly Saltmarsh, Conservator, cleaned and prepared the canvas for re-lining; during the work she began to query the attribution of the painting. The newly conserved and re-attributed portrait of Sir Richard Jebb can be seen in the Burlington Room on the ground floor of the British Academy.
Portrait of Sir Richard Jebb during conservation work
For many years the painting had been attributed to John Collier (1850-1934), one of the leading portrait painters of his generation. This attribution probably stems from Frederic Kenyon’s history of the British Academy’s first 50 years. When describing the opening of the Academy’s new rooms in Burlington Gardens in 1928, Kenyon notes that the Council Room was adorned with portraits including that ‘of Sir Richard Jebb, O.M., by the Hon. John Collier, presented by Lady Jebb’. It appears that until Polly started her conservation work, this attribution had never been questioned.
Polly knew that Collier kept a record of his paintings including every sitter, so she consulted the copy of Collier’s journal held at the National Portrait Gallery. The journal does not record a sitting by Sir Richard. Further investigation led Polly to believe that the portrait had actually been painted by the artist George Reid (1841‐1913). The British Academy painting has Reid's distinctive R monogram which can be seen on many of the artist’s other works. Reid was a Scottish artist who painted both landscapes and portraits. He spent time in Paris and the Netherlands developing his technique alongside other contemporary artists such as Jozef Israëls. He was made President of the Scottish Royal Academy in 1891.
In fact, the Academy’s portrait of Jebb appears to be a smaller version of the three quarter length painting that Reid completed of Sir Richard Jebb dated 1903. This painting is now in the collection of Trinity College, Cambridge. It is unclear what relation the paintings have to one another, the smaller version maybe a study for the larger portrait, or it may have been a secondary commission by the artist's family. The handling of the British Academy work is certainly freer in the brushwork, especially in the sitter's red robe.
Portrait of Sir Richard Jebb by George Reid, Trinity College collection
Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, OM, FBA (1841–1905) was a distinguished classical scholar, specialising in Greek, especially Sophocles. His work on modern Greece and Greek earned him the Order of the Saviour from the King of Greece. He was central in planning and raising funds for the establishment of the British School in Athens in 1886. He also played a significant role in the foundation of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, and was MP for the University.
Since Polly’s work on the painting, a letter has been found in the British Academy’s archive from Jebb’s wife Caroline. Caroline Slemmer, née Reynolds, (1840-1930) was an American widow who met Jebb when she was staying in Cambridge after the death of her first husband. Writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Hugh Lloyd-Jones says “Mrs Slemmer was in the unanimous opinion of all who knew her a great beauty, with auburn hair and a deep rich voice; she was also highly cultivated and exceptionally intelligent”. Caroline and Sir Richard were married in 1874. In 1917 Caroline wrote to Israel Gollancz, Secretary of the British Academy, offering a portrait of her husband to the Academy. Sir Richard had died in 1905 and, at the time of the letter, Lady Jebb was preparing to return to America.
Caroline Jebb thought a photograph she had of her husband was “more like him than either of the portraits”. However, Lloyd-Jones writes in the ODNB that according to one who knew Jebb, the portrait in Trinity College was “a faithful likeness, but the sitter was suffering from hay fever at the time, and the expression is consequently harassed”.
Portrait of Sir Richard Jebb by George Reid, British Academy collection