McArdell, James (1728/9–1765), mezzotint engraver, was born in Cow Lane (afterwards Greek Street), St Michan's Parish, Dublin. His father may have been the Patrick McArdell who was recorded as living in Cow Lane in 1726, when the baptism of a daughter was recorded in Roman catholic records. James became the leading mezzotint engraver of the ‘Dublin Group’ of engravers who dominated the London scene between 1750 and 1775.
McArdell was one of a number of pupils (with Richard Houston (qv), Charles Spooner (qv), and Richard Purcell) of John Brooks (qv), an Irish line-engraver who had returned from London to Dublin in 1740 having learned the technique. Brooks, with his main assistant Andrew Miller (d. 1763), set about a project to publish one hundred mezzotint portraits by subscription, but Miller left and the scheme was not completed. Strickland suggests that Miller's influence on the young pupils was more than that of Brooks. McArdell's earliest work was a portrait of Primate Hugh Boulter (qv), archbishop of Armagh, published in 1747. That same year Brooks, together with McArdell and Houston, moved to London, and on 26 August Jeffreys and Herbert published a humorous print by McArdell, Teague's ramble at Charring Cross.
By 1750 McArdell was working on his own in London. He had opened a shop by 1751 at the Golden Head next to Southampton Street in Covent Garden, where he lived and where in 1753 he published six views of Dublin. In later years he was living in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, under the same sign. Faulkner's Journal records in September 1751 that he visited Dublin, appointing Paul Smith of Crane Lane and Thomas Silcock of Nicholas Street as agents to sell his prints. He developed a virtuoso technique, and an engraving made in 1752 after Van Dyck's The two sons of the 1st duke of Buckingham helped to make his reputation.
McArdell attracted contemporary painters anxious to publicise their work, particularly Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had just established his studio in London. He became a leading engraver of the early works of Reynolds, who became the most successful portrait painter in London; by the time of his death he had engraved thirty-eight of Reynolds's pictures. Reynolds was reputed to have remarked: ‘By this man I shall be immortalised’ (Strickland, ii, 45). The first of the latter's portraits which McArdell engraved included one of Lady Charlotte Fitzwilliam, published by Reynolds himself in 1753, and the portraits of the 20th earl of Kildare (qv) and his wife, Lady Emily (later first duke and duchess of Leinster (qv)), in 1754. The latter pair were published in Dublin by Michael Ford, Cork Hill, Dublin – a fellow pupil of Brooks who had remained in Dublin.
McArdell also engraved some 200 works of other artists, including Francis Cotes (d. 1770), Gainsborough, Hogarth (his famous portrait of Captain Coram of the Foundling Hospital), Nathaniel Hone (qv), Hudson (more than twenty engravings, among them the famous Duchess of Ancaster), Robert Hunter (qv), Kneller, Ramsay, and the old masters Corregio, Murillo, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyke. He made several engravings of actors in character, some of which were drawn by himself, notably a few of David Garrick and others of Quin and Foote. He exhibited regularly at the Society of Artists in London, of which he was a director. Strickland said of him: ‘McArdell in his short, but brilliant, career as a mezzotinter raised the art from the low level to which it had sunk, and his work inaugurated the great period of English mezzotinting of the latter half of the eighteenth century’ (Strickland, ii, 46). McArdell was an amiable character and allowed his contemporaries Houston, Spooner, and Purcell to copy his engravings. He was followed by a number of leading engravers, including his pupil Richard Earlom and two further Irishmen, James Dixon and James Watson (qv). The publisher Robert Sayer acquired his plates after his death and continued to print them with worn surfaces.
McArdell never married. He died, intestate, in London on 2 June 1765 and was buried in Hampstead churchyard; his estate was administered by his brother Philip, a herald painter of Dorset Street, Dublin, who died 30 September 1777. Richard Earlom produced in 1771 a posthumous mezzotint engraving of McArdell's self-portrait holding his plate of Van Dyck's Time clipping the wings of Cupid, a copy of which is in the NGI (illustrated in Alexander, 76). An exhibition devoted to McArdell's work was held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1886. There are substantial collections of his works in the NGI and in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.