Bernard Lens was well known for adapting large oil paintings to a miniature scale, painting for noble clients who usually commissioned small works after their own paintings, such as John and Sarah Jenyns Churchill, first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. The son of Bernard Lens II (1659/60–1725), draftsman and drawing master at Christ’s Hospital, London, Bernard Lens III inherited his father’s drawing talent and in addition taught drawing skills to Horace Walpole, the three children of King George II (William Augustus, Mary, and Louisa), and John Spencer, grandson of the first Duke of Marlborough.
The present work probably dates to Lens’s appointment, in 1720, as “Painter in Enamell [sic] in Ordinary” to King George I. Although Lens did not work in enamel, his chosen medium being watercolour on vellum (and later ivory), he had inherited the royal appointment from the enameller Charles Boit (1662–1727), along with his official title. Lens would have had access to the Royal Collection of paintings and works of art, including Sir Godfrey Kneller’s output of portraits dating from the king’s accession in 1714. This work is painted on a thick piece of ivory, Lens being the first British artist to adopt and adapt this technique, the careful stipple on the face a reminder of the precise skill required to persuade the watercolour paint to adhere to such an unsympathetic surface.
The head type for this portrait would appear to derive from a combination of the Georg Wilhelm Fountain’s (also known as Georg Wilhelm Lafontaine or Fontaine, 1680-1745) portrait of the king. Len’s portrait appears to slightly pre-date the official State Portrait of the King painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1715, showing him standing, full-length, in Coronation robes with a distant view of Westminster Abbey in the background. The primary version of the portrait is at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Numerous studio copies are in existence, including one at Windsor Castle (405677) and the reduced copy at Bisham Abbey, Berkshire. Here, both portraits have been adapted and amalgamated by Lens, so the king wears a powdered wig (as seen in Fountain’s portrait) but carries the sceptre, as shown in versions by and after Kneller. Although there is no record of who commissioned this work, it is almost as ambitious in scale as some of the cabinet miniatures produced in the 17th century by Isaac Oliver and his son Peter and would have been a costly commission.