Hone, Nathaniel (1718–84), portrait painter, was born 24 April 1718, third among five sons of Nathaniel Hone, merchant of Wood Quay, Dublin, and Rebeckah Hone (née Brindley). The Hone family was presbyterian and their ancestors, some of whom were Dutch goldsmiths, had emigrated from Holland in the seventeenth century.
Nothing is known for certain of Hone's artistic training but in his lifetime he progressed from painting miniatures to establishing himself as one of the leading portrait painters in London. He was possibly self-taught but the existence of pastel drawings by him (at Burghley House, Lincolnshire), indicates that he may have attended the private drawing school of Robert West (qv) in Dublin in the late 1730s. Additionally, the skill that he demonstrated in the technique of enamel painting suggests that he may have been apprenticed at an early stage to an enamellist.
Probably around the early 1740s Hone moved to England, where he was an itinerant portrait painter. In February 1742 he married Mary Earle (1721–91), in York Minster, a lady of independent means, whose unknown background has led to speculation that she was either a natural daughter or cast-off mistress of an aristocrat (Crookshank & Glin (2002), 99). They had five sons and five daughters: Nathaniel (a captain in the Wiltshire Militia), Horace (qv), John Camillus, Samuel, Apelles, Lydia, Amelia (m. Ambrose Rigg), Mary (m. a Dr Metcalfe), Sophia, and Floreth. Hone's fondness for his children and grandchildren is obvious from the numerous ground-breaking portraits which he painted of them, showing them as individuals in their own right rather than as small adults. It undoubtedly affected him deeply that Samuel, Apelles, Lydia, Sophia, and Floreth all died young.
By 1748 the Hone family had moved to London, where they settled permanently: in 1752 they lived at Henrietta St., Covent Garden; after 1775 in an apartment at Schomberg House, Pall Mall; and by Hone's death at 44 Rathbone Place.
In his early career, Hone's output consisted mainly of miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory and enamels, with his naturalistic style showing a debt to William Hogarth (1697–1764) and Thomas Hudson (1701–79). From 1746 till about 1760 he succeeded Christian Friedrich Zincke (1683/5–1767) as the foremost enamel miniaturist of his day. Hone's miniatures are usually clearly signed in monogram, ‘NH’, with the date. Few works in oils by Hone survive from before the mid 1740s; his earliest known easel painting, dated 1741, is of George Gostling. His diary of 1752 records that he had sixty sitters and was charging ten guineas (£10.50) for a miniature (BL, Add. MS 440245).
Although he never went to Italy, on 14 January 1753 Nathaniel Hone was elected in absentia as a member of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence. This election was arranged by his brother Samuel, a minor painter, who had been made a member in the previous year. Membership of this academy was undoubtedly an asset to Nathaniel in London in terms of his success with obtaining commissions, which came from the royal family, the aristocracy, the judiciary, the political hierarchy, and the acting profession.
In 1760 he turned more to life-sized oil painting, when in his own words he ‘gave up his leisure-hours from that time to painting in oil’ (St Martin's Lane exhibition catalogue, 1775). In that year he sent to the first ever public exhibition in London, held by the Society of Artists, ‘A brickdust man’, an example of one of the ‘fancy pictures’, combining portraiture with genre, for which he became known. In 1766 Hone became one of the first directors of the Society of Incorporated Artists of Great Britain but in 1768 he left it, with other artists, to become a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1769 for the first exhibition of the RA he contributed ‘A piping boy’, a portrait of his son John Camillus, in the guise of a shepherd boy. Altogether he exhibited a total of sixty-nine works at the RA up till the year of his death.
Hone, a large, tall man, was a quarrelsome, stubborn individual and had a turbulent relationship with the RA. In 1770 he contributed a painting showing Francis Grose (1731–91) and Theodosius Forrest (1729–84) masquerading as two Capuchin friars, one stirring a punchbowl with a crucifix, which he was forced to change as it was considered too distasteful. Unperturbed, Hone published a mezzotint of this painting in its original state two years later.
Hone was irritated by the RA president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), and was not afraid to show his disapproval. In 1774, at the election of the RA president, Hone proposed Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), as an alternative candidate. In the following year, causing serious insult, Hone submitted ‘The conjuror’ (NGI) to the RA for exhibition. This was a direct attack on the work of Reynolds, which satirised his dependence on old master paintings as a source for his portraits, and also suggested that he had formed an intimacy with Angelica Kauffman RA. The work was rejected, even though Hone over-painted the section showing naked women dancing which was offensive to Kauffman. Defiantly, Hone held the first ever one-man retrospective exhibition in Britain, at 70 St Martin's Lane, London, where ‘The conjuror’ was exhibited along with sixty-six other works, including enamel miniatures, oil portraits, subject pictures, and landscapes.
Hone himself was greatly influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch painting and admired the work of Rembrandt, as demonstrated in his own self-portraits (at least eight oils – three in the NGI – and two miniatures). He was an accomplished engraver and scraper of mezzotints, and over thirty of his pictures were published by himself and others. He was also a collector of paintings and drawings, most of which were sold after his death. He died on 14 August 1784 in London and was buried at the family plot at Hendon churchyard, Middlesex, on 20 August.
Two of his sons, John Camillus (1745–1836) and Horace (1756–1825) became well known miniature-painters and both the artists Nathaniel Hone the Younger (qv) (1831–1917) and Evie Hone (qv) were direct descendants.