Gold frame with pearl border and hanger, the reverse with green guilloche enamel panels, the central panel with gold initials ‘SS’ beneath a countess’s coronet
Relatively few works have emerged from Donaldson’s hand, although he appears to have been a well-known artist in his day. When the Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was asked to choose an artist from whose portrait a frontispiece to his work would be engraved, he chose Donaldson, stating that “in everybody’s Opinion, as well as my own…the likest that has been done for me, as well as the best Likeness”.
John Donaldson was the son of a Glover and was born in Edinburgh in 1737, however, he is only first recorded in 1756 when he won a prize from the Society of the Encouragement of Art, Sciences, Manufactures, and Agriculture in Edinburgh for a drawing copying a bust of Horace. The following year he won a second prize from the society for the best drawing ‘from any statue for boys under 20.’ Like his contemporary James Ferguson, he had little or no education but showed early signs of artistic prowess. Again, like Ferguson, from the age of twelve he had gained a reputation as a competent drawer in Indian inks, producing portraits as well as copies of the Old Masters. So successful were these early endeavours that he was able to support not just himself but his family too.
From 1757 he is known to have been working under Richard Cooper, the engraver. There is a miniature portrait of his master in the Yale Center for British Art collection, New Haven, Connecticut. In c.1760 Donaldson moved to Mr Coopers in Princes Street, Leicester Fields, in London where he is thought to have remained, however in David Laing’s notes on the artist he is described as having a career in Edinburgh. It is impossible that Donaldson could have worked simultaneously in both cities and is thought to have been mistaken by Laing for another John Donaldson, a decorative painter, who lived and worked in Edinburgh.
From 1761 onwards Donaldson regularly exhibited in London, presenting three miniatures to the Society of Artists in 1763, and from then on predominantly worked in miniature. He became a member of the Society of Artists the following year and became a member of their council in 1789. He won the first premium prize at the Society of Arts for his The Tent of Darius in 1764 and again in 1768 for Hero and Leander. In the same year, 1768, he also drew a portrait of David Hume, a key member of the Scottish Enlightenment, thought to be in graphite, which was used for the frontispiece of Essays and Treatises and then used again for Hume’s book History in England.
In 1786 Donaldson applied to succeed Alexander Runciman as master of the Trustees’ Academy, which would have meant returning to Edinburgh but he was unsuccessful. Donaldson was one of the most colourful characters among artists. A vegetarian (rare in the eighteenth century), he was also something of a polymath, able to turn his hand (successfully) to many branches of not only art, but also chemistry. He was also interested in politics and reform, having a strong sense of justice.
Donaldson’s views were considered eccentric and radical amongst the London elite which made him increasingly unpopular with potential patrons, because of this his business begun to fail. He published two books which did not successfully revive his appeal, Elements of Beauty: also Reflections on the Harmony of Sensibility and Reason in 1780 and Poems in 1784. He moved from Westminster to Islington where he lived out the rest of his life in poverty; he died in 1801, surrounded by friends, and was buried in St Mary’s Church in Islington.
Donaldson worked in a diverse range of mediums including watercolour on ivory, enamel and graphite on vellum and he etched several plates of beggars after Rembrandt ‘which possess considerable merit.’ Williamson described his miniatures as; ‘scarce, but of extraordinary force and vigour, although often marked by most eccentric colouring.’