John Downman was one of the finest and most popular portraitists of the late eighteenth century, who received the patronage of both members of the royal family and icons of fashion. Working mainly in watercolour and pastel, he specialised in small format images that often depicted the half-length of the sitter in profile or semi-profile. John Downman was born at Ruabon, near Wrexham, in North Wales, the youngest of the five sons of the attorney, Francis Downman, and his wife, Charlotte (née Goodsend), the daughter of the private secretary to George I. During his education at local schools, he began to show an aptitude for art, producing portraits and caricatures of his teachers and fellow pupils. He then probably received early drawing lessons in Chester and Liverpool. In 1767, he moved to London, in order to study under Benjamin West and, in the same year, exhibited for the first time with the Free Society of Artists.
In 1769, he entered the recently founded Royal Academy Schools and, in 1770, first showed work at the Royal Academy of Arts, from an address at South Street, Berkeley Square. From the beginning, he specialised in portraiture, in a variety of media, while occasionally producing historical and literary subjects. He also painted a number of fresh and original landscapes between 1773 and 1775, during a period of travel to Italy in the company of Joseph Wright of Derby.
Before 1773, Downman had married his first wife, Elizabeth, and they would have three children: two sons and one daughter, Isabella Chloë, who was baptised at St Anne, Soho, London, on 2 July 1787. Almost nothing is known of this marriage, and Elizabeth seems to have died or disappeared by 1804.
Following his return to England in September 1775, Downman lived initially in Cambridge, where he set up as a portraitist, and received support from the Mortlocks, a local family of bankers (whose portraits he drew in the years 1777-79). Moving to London in 1778, and soon settling at 79 St James’s Street, he confirmed his artistic reputation, and developed a characteristic combination of black chalk with additions of red chalk and watercolour that gave vitality to the portrayals of his sitters. He tended to exhibit his small, often oval, portraits in groups of six or nine, and mostly at the Royal Academy. In 1795, he became an associate of the RA, and immediately moved from Leicester Fields, which had been his home for a decade, to Fitzroy Street. Between 1802 and 1804, he lived briefly at a number of addresses in the Piccadilly area, before leaving London to take up residence at Went House, West Malling, Kent, which he had inherited from an uncle.
In 1806, Downman travelled to Devon and, that October, married Mary Jackson, daughter of the composer, William Jackson, in Exeter Cathedral. However, she died in the following year, and he returned to London. In the later phase of his career, he travelled widely in England in order to fulfil portrait commissions, making trips to the Lake District, Northumberland and Yorkshire that may have encouraged a desire to return North. Exhibiting at the Royal Academy for one last time in 1817, he retired first to Chester and finally to Wrexham. In the same year, his one surviving child, Isabella, married a Chester solicitor in Wrexham. He died at home on 24 December 1824.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate, the V&A and The Wallace Collection; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and Manchester Art Gallery; National Museum Wales (Cardiff); and the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).
Further reading: Geoffrey Ashton, ‘Downman, John (b Ruabon, N Wales, 1750; d Wrexham, Dec 24, 1824), Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T023524; Jane Munro, ‘Downman, John (1750-1824)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/7984; Jane Munro, John Downman, 1750-1824: landscape,figure studies and portraits of ‘Distinguished persons’, Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum, 1996; G C Williamson, John Downman ARA: His Life and Works, London: Otto, 1907