This portrait shows James Boswell – lawyer, diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson – at the age of 24. The brooding elemental setting alludes to a continental location and bears witness to the fact that Boswell was seeking more to life than his projected destiny in the Scottish legal world. The portrait was painted in Rome during his Grand Tour, which he had embarked upon in 1763.
Boswell revealed the neutral pose he adopted for his sitting with the artist, George Willison, describing it as “a plain, bold, serious attitude”. The wealth of painterly detail employed to render the costume – velvet, fur, lace, brocade, silk and felt – demand that onlookers linger in front of the painting for reasons other than a glance at the face of the young Boswell. Colour is used to ensure that every part of the picture is explored – the green of Boswell’s coat chimes with the colour of the sea behind and the embroidered brocade leads upwards to the owl and its piercing yellow eyes.
At this stage of dissection the sitter could be thought of as merely a mannequin for the display of the artist’s skill. This thought is eroded with the inclusion of a detail that reveals the character of the sitter – Boswell’s shirt poking out at his stomach due to several unfastened buttons. Although painted in Willison’s studio in the late spring of 1765, all nature is present and the painting comes alive with sounds of an emerald sea below a darkened sky.
Willison’s portrait can be regarded as a comment on the progress of Boswell’s Grand Tour. From his journals we know that he wore the same coat – a “greatcoat of green camlet lined with fox-skin fur, with the collar and cuffs of the same fur” – and waistcoat, six months earlier to meet the French philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire.
Willison’s portrait of Boswell will be on display when the Portrait Gallery reopens in November 2011, in the exhibition Citizens of the World.