This young labourer, staring intently at the viewer, has a distinctly Italian look. The painting has been identified as that exhibited by painter Henry Tanworth Wells at the Royal Academy, London, in 1864 under the title ‘A Roman Labourer’. The style of the painting and particularly the frame are reminiscent of the work of painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although Wells was not a member of the Brotherhood, he was closely associated with the artists involved and his wife, Joanna Boyce, was the sister of George Boyce, a watercolour painter and close friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
In 1864, Wells exhibited four paintings at the Royal Academy; three portraits and this work. While a reporter for ‘The Athenaeum’ felt his portrait of Mrs Stewart Hodgson was ‘one of the finest and most agreeable portraits of ladies we have seen for many a day’, this work was not as well received: ‘We care less for the artist’s study of a model, styled A Roman Labourer.’ In the previous year, the same publication had described Wells as ‘Our best English portrait painter and miniaturist’.
Henry Tanworth Wells was a pupil of the painter of portraits and historical subjects James Matthews Leigh. Wells initially specialised in miniature portraits but as the development of photography reduced demand, he began painting on a larger scale. In 1870 he became a member of the Royal Academy and soon took a leading role in Academy administration. Wells married the painter and writer Joanna Boyce. Shortly after the birth of their third child Joanna died. Wells’ son, Sidney, also died suddenly at the age of just ten. A successful painter and prosperous artist, Wells’ best known work was ‘Princess Victoria Receiving the News of Her Succession’ (1837) now in the Royal Collection.
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