The Locket


The location in this untitled painting by John Hamilton Mortimer is the studio of the painter himself. We are witness to a gathering of an interesting group of lively, talkative men who are consuming oysters and drink. The members of this cross-section of Covent Garden society are likely to be good friends who have been meeting together over a period of time. Laurence Sterne is the central figure and he is shown standing and pulling open his shirt to reveal a heart-shaped locket hanging upon a chain around his neck. The miniature portrait inside the locket is that of Eliza Draper. Sterne’s extravagant behaviour is being gently mocked by the painter as this sort of public display of affection by the writer was a common occurrence in 1767 when this ‘conversation piece’ was painted.

Some of the absent members of the club can perhaps be seen in the unframed canvasses on casual display. John Ireland (watchmaker) dangles an oyster and is watched by Joseph Wilton the sculptor who is attempting to bludgeon his way into another shellfish using his knife and fork. Others have raised their glasses – perhaps in a toast to Eliza called for by Sterne. Eliza’s image was actually carried by Sterne in his snuff-box but this imagined and more dramatic demonstration of devotion is more suitable to Mortimer’s purpose.

Those who have been identified are listed below. Others remain a mystery.

From left:

1. John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79) 2. Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-85) 3. John Ireland (d.1808) 4. Dr Thomas Arne (1710-78) 5. (standing) Capt. Francis Grose (1731-91) 6. (seated) Unidentified 7. (standing) & 8. Unidentified 9. Laurence Sterne (1713-68) 10. (?)Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815) 11. (?)Samuel Scott (1702-72) 12. (?)Joseph Wilton 13. (?) Capt. William Baillie (1723-1810) 14. (standing) Dr. John Armstrong (1709-79) 15, 16, 17, 18 (the canvas portrait at bottom left) all Unidentified.

The men awaiting identification include the following possible candidates:

Sir William Chambers; Sir Francis Delaval; David Garrick; John Hall-Stevenson; Thomas Hearne; Edmund Malone; James Pine; Robert Edge Pine; Sir Joshua Reynolds; Luke Sullivan; James Stuart; Caleb Whiteford; Francis Zucarelli.

For a full account of this painting see: Cash, Arthur: Laurence Sterne – The Later Years pub Methuen 1986 pp. 365 -372.

Thanks to the Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection for permission to use this image.