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Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-89) was as shrewd an operator as he was skilled a draughtsman. Armed with a box of pastels (essentially, sticks of powdered pigment held together with gum) and a knack for self-publicity, the Swiss artist left Paris for Rome in 1736, palling up with British ex-pats and aristos and tagging along on the Grand Tour as a kind of proto-holiday snapper. In Constantinople, he grew a preposterous beard and met the British ambassador, Sir Everard Fawkener, who greased the wheels of introduction to the upper echelons of society in Britain, France and Austria. The beard proved to be as much a PR coup as Liotard’s brilliantly luminous way of capturing his well-heeled sitters in their finery: when he arrived in London in 1753 ‘The Turk’, as Liotard was known, caused a sensation, though Joshua Reynolds, future president of the Royal Academy, was quick to dismiss him as ‘the very essence of imposture’.
This show is a crystalline history of eighteenth-century society as seen through an international cast of bankers, doctors, thinkers and actors, as well as royalty, all of whom Liotard recorded with intimate ease. It’s a world of new horizons and crumbling institutions. Liotard died before the French Revolution, but he met people who were destined for the guillotine, including a young Marie-Antoinette, still an Austrian archduchess when he drew her exquisitely in chalk in 1762.
Some of his portraits, especially of children, tend towards the saccharine. However, while he earned the confidence of the great and the good, he was no flatterer (his portraits of the Countess of Guildford and Marchioness of Hartington, both from 1754, are anything but idealised). Still, even when describing a double chin or bulbous nose, the expertly blended tones of pastel start, in the end, to look a bit flat. Meanwhile, a ravishing oil painting ‘Still-life: Tea Set’, (c1770-83) in which Liotard combines the technical precision and compositional informality that marks his best portraits, makes you wish he’d spent more time working in that richer, slower medium. But then, had he done so, Liotard probably wouldn’t have got around quite as much, and we wouldn’t have this rollicking ride through a turbulent century.