Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg was a highly innovative historical painter, particularly during the 1790s. Dated 1791, this intriguing and well-preserved picture, which displays the artist’s technical virtuosity and taste for a vivid and fresh palette, is, apart from a drawing of the Apotheosis of Captain Cook, a unique example in the artist’s career.
It is possible that Loutherbourg knew the subject depicted in our painting. Apart from the similarity to some of the historical paintings that he was producing at this time for Thomas Macklin's Bible project, there seems no reason to paint such a unique painting. It is tantalising to suggest that the subject of the apotheosis may be Penelope Brooke, the only daughter of Sir Brooke Boothby (1744 - 1824), the subject of Joseph Wright of Derby’s extraordinary portrait in the Tate (NO4132). Penelope died tragically at the age of 5 in 1791 (the date of Loutherbourg’s painting) and her father never fully recovered as a result. She had been portrayed by Joshua Reynolds, aged 4 in a portrait now known as ‘The Mob Cap’ and her father was devoted to her. After her death Brooke commissioned an apotheosis from Henry Fuseli (Wolverhampton Art Gallery, OP79)
as well as the Boothby monument by Thomas Banks in St Oswald’s in Ashbourne. Both depict Penelope as looking quite a bit older than she actually was and it may well be the same in this painting by Loutherbourg. Whoever she was, her identity remains an unanswered question for now, but she must have been well known and well liked by Loutherbourg.
Edward James was an important patron and confidant of some of the leading Surrealist painters of their generation, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí amongst others. Having left university in Paris, he collaborated with other leading lights of the avant-garde circle, namely Paul Eluard and André Breton. He famously collaborated with Dalí on the Mae West lips sofa and the Lobster telephone which were made by Green & Abbott. West Dean was inherited from his father, William, who had bought the house and most of its contents from the Peachey family.
We are grateful to Olivier Lefeuvre for his assistance with this painting. It was unknown to him until its recent discovery.
Purchased by William James from David Isaacs, 6 August 1901 for £50 (the frame cost a further £35);
Collection of Edward James
West Dean Park, Inventory, 1894-. WDMS. 3332, ‘Oil painting by de Louterbourgh [sic]. Frame/carved wood, old / £35. Isaacs. 1901. £85’;
West Dean Park, Inventory, 1912, Vol. I WDMS. 336, p. 240 – THE MORNING ROOM – P. I. de Loutherbourg. 1701, Angels with a young girl ascending to Heaven; 49 x 39.