Core Holdings of the Tormey-Holder Collection: Joseph Dunckerley
Joseph Dunckerley (1728-1802),
Georgian Era London Jeweler and Father of the Artist
by Joseph Dunckerley (1752-1806)
1 7/8 x 2 3/8 inches
This miniature portrait by Joseph Dunckerley of his father is an important addition to the collection. Additionally, it can be said that its discovery represents a "Rosetta Stone" of sorts in the study of Early American miniature portraiture.
Brad Crisler of Truman B. Crisler Fine Portrait Miniatures deserves credit for having discovered this important work of Early American art; and we are grateful to him for having brought it to our attention and made it available to the collection.
Making this miniature portrait especially meaningful is the inscription on its backing paper to the reverse, an image of which appears below:
Inscribed in the artist's handwriting is the name of his father, James Dunckerley, and his father's years of birth and death. That this is the handwriting of Joseph Dunckerley himself can be confirmed by comparing it to a known example of his signature from 24 years prior, when then Lieutenant Joseph Dunckerley served in George Washington's Continental Army as an adjutant to Col. David Henley, commanding officer of American troops in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
This signature by Dunckerley as adjutant was affixed to a document dated May 28, 1778, in which Dunckerley and other officers of Col. Henley's regiment acknowledged the receipt of wages.* Although there are some minor differences between this example of Dunckerley's signature and the handwriting to the reverse of the miniature portrait (which was written 24 years later, when the artist was then 50 years old), analysis easily confirms that both were written by the same hand.
[*U.S. Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1883; National Archives Microfilm Publication M246, Roll 125, Image number 0325; War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Record Group 93, National Archives, Washington, D.C.]
There are two important facts that can be corroborated with this inscription to the reverse of the miniature. First, that James Dunckerley's name and exact years of birth and death appear confirms our prior research finding -- that the artist Joseph Dunckerley was the son of Georgian Era London Jeweler James Dunckerley, who was born in 1728 and died in 1802. (See prior article, dated December 23, 2016.) Second, the spelling of Dunckerley's name, in his own handwriting, supports what we have also outlined previously -- that Joseph Dunckerley (and three generations of his family) only ever spelled his name as Dunckerley (and not Dunkerly or Dunkerley, as has been maintained by art historians in the past).
Perhaps more importantly, the presence of Joseph Dunckerley's handwriting to the reverse of the miniature portrait, and the undeniable connection of the artist to the named subject, James Dunckerley, allow this portrait to serve as a certain example of Joseph Dunckerley's painting style when one is trying to attribute other works to him. One should note, in particular, Dunckerley's use of shadowing and the depth of detail with which he paints the faces of his subjects. One should also take note of the consistent color palette used by Dunckerley -- particularly in terms of how he painted his backgrounds.
Following is a useful side-by-side comparison of four miniature portraits known to have been painted by Dunckerley: (1) portrait of Boston merchant William Gale, initialed by Dunckerley and dated 1776 [a holding of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, museum accession number 66.222.30]; (2) portrait of Rachel Walker Revere, wife of American patriot Paul Revere, circa 1784/85 [a holding of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, museum accession number 35.1850]; (3) portrait of an unidentified Early American lady of Boston, wearing a bonnet, circa 1785 [a holding of the Tormey-Holder Collection]; and (4) portrait of James Dunckerley, father of the artist, dated 1802, as outlined herein [a holding of the Tormey-Holder Collection].
In comparing these miniatures, painted over a period of 26 years (1776-1802), one can see an evolution in Dunckerley's painting skill over time; but one can also recognize some features that remained consistent over Dunckerley's career: (1) his way of depicting chins and noses; (2) his muted color palette; (3) the foggy look of his backgrounds, painted with notes of brown, green, blue and yellow; and (4) his posing of subjects, facing slightly to the viewer's right. (In public and private collections alike, there are several miniature portraits attributed to Joseph Dunckerley that differ widely from these four solid examples of his work. It is our belief that many of these attributions are in error.)
One final point of interest that can be gleaned from Joseph Dunckerley's portrait of his father is that it is a rare surviving example of his work painted during the period when he lived in the British West Indies, on the island of Jamaica.
It is not known, however, whether Dunckerley actually painted this portrait in Jamaica or whether he instead painted the portrait while visiting his father in London. In either case, it remains Dunckerley's last known work, as he himself died four years later, in 1806.
Other portraits in the Tormey-Holder Collection by Joseph Dunckerley
(click photo for larger view and additional information):