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Henry Benbridge

 (1743 - 1812)
Henry Benbridge was active/lived in South Carolina, Pennsylvania / Italy.  Henry Benbridge is known for portrait and figure painting-miniature.

Henry Benbridge

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Philadelphia, Henry Benbridge was a portrait and figure painter who is known for the naturalism of his subjects and especially the richness with which he depicted the fabric of their clothing.

He studied in Philadelphia with John Wollaston. At age 21, he inherited substantial money and studied for four years, 1765 to 1769, in Italy at a time when archaeological finds were generating much interest in classical antiquity. He associated with Christopher Hewetson, a successful Irish sculptor, and through him met some of the most prominent artists of the day. He was also friendly with Anton Raphael Mengs, a leading contemporary artist, and Pompeo Batoni, a favorite of the British.

He then went to London for a year and became associated with painter Benjamin West, a relative by marriage, and West was very helpful to him as was American statesman, Benjamin Franklin to whom he had a letter of introduction.

In 1770, he returned to Philadelphia where he married miniaturist Letitia Sage. For reasons unclear, they settled in Charleston, a move that may have resulted from distinguished southerners he had met at the American Philosophical Society such as John Deas and Ralph Izard.

In Charleston, Benbridge he succeeded Jeremiah Theus as the most prominent portraitist of distinguished local residents, especially persons with Philadelphia and London connections such as the Thomas Middleton family. He also did numerous miniatures.

When the British captured Charleston, Benbridge, a strong patriot, refused allegiance to them and was exiled to Saint Augustine, Florida for two years. He was released in 1783, and he returned to Charleston, where he again had many portrait commissions, this time among people who shared his political loyalties. After 1790, he did few paintings, likely because of ill health, but he did give lessons around 1800 to Thomas Sully, who was living in Norfolk, Virginia. Eventually Benbridge left Charleston, where there are few extant paintings of his during his years in the South.

Michael David Zellman, "300 Years of American Art"
Matthew Baigell, "Dictionary of American Art"
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
HENRY BENBRIDGE (1743 - 1812)

Though Henry Benbridge's career as a painter flourished in the South, he got his start in life in Philadelphia, where he was baptized in Christ Church on May 27, 1744, at the age of seven months and seven days.(1) His father James died in 1751, but Henry was well cared for by his stepfather Thomas Gordon, a Philadelphia merchant whom his mother married in October of that year. Gordon paid Henry's tuition at the Philadelphia Academy where he studied mathematics between 1751 and 1758. In the latter year, he left the school to study art with the English portraitist John Wollaston who was then working in Philadelphia. Wollaston painted Thomas Gordon's portrait, and it has been suggested that this commission was granted for Henry's benefit, so that he could watch the fashionable portraitist work right in his stepfather's house.

In 1764, upon the attainment of his majority, Benbridge inherited 100 pounds that his father had left to him in his will. This enabled him to go to Italy, and by 1765 he was sharing quarters in Rome with Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson. It has been proposed that Benbridge studied with Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni; however, any influence of the former seems to be lacking in Benbridge's work, and where his early work has a brownish palette in common with that of Batoni, this was already characteristic of Benbridge before he went to Italy.

A definite influence on his development were the caricatures drawn by Thomas Patch, an English artist who went to Italy in 1747 and remained there the rest of his life. Patch was well known for his figures which possessed heads that were disproportionately large for the rest of the body and which had exaggerated facial features. The enlarged heads Benbridge employed in his conversation pieces, cabinet-size group portraits in which the subjects are statically posed and their facial features, though not exaggerated, are plainly portrayed in an unidealized manner. These pieces, which Benbridge called his "portraits in small" were his unique contribution to American art.

Benbridge left Italy in November of 1769 and was in London by December 7th. He took rooms close to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin West, to whom he was tenuously related, and often dined with them. He exhibited two paintings at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1770, one of which was a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, then residing in London. Benbridge left London in the summer of 1770, carrying letters of introduction with him from both West and Franklin.

He returned to his family in Philadelphia and probably shortly thereafter met Hetty Sage, a miniature painter, to whom he was married by early 1772. They had one child, Harry, who was born on December 12th of that year. In March Henry had been in Charleston, perhaps to see what kind of a portrait business be could have there. The South Carolina Gazette carried this notice on March 22nd: "On Friday last Mr. Bambridge {sic}, an ingenious Limner, etc. embarked on his return to Philadelphia with some other passengers in the Brigt. Prince of Wales, Capt. Moore." (2)

Hetty arrived with little Harry and her mother early in April 1773. Hetty may have died shortly thereafter, for a letter to Benbridge from Charles Willson Peale dated May 1, 1773, makes the last known reference to her.

When Charleston fell to the British on May 12, 1780, Benbridge, a colonial sympathizer, was imprisoned with many other Charlestonians in St. Augustine, Florida. Upon his release he went to Philadelphia, where it is recorded that he sold some property. He may have been settling the estate of his mother who had died in 1778. He returned to Charleston the first week of 1784. The Charleston Weekly Gazette of January 9, 1784, carried the following notice: "Yesterday se'night arrived here from Philadelphia, but last from Virginia, Henry Benbridge, Esq.; Historical and Portrait Painter; a gentleman of the greatest abilities in his profession,..."(3)

Benbridge was kept extremely busy through the 1780s as attested by his letters to relatives. Throughout his Charleston years both before and after the Revolution he painted the most prominent families not only of that city but from upstate South Carolina and Georgia as well. Members of the Broughton and Pickney families of South Carolina and the Morel and Bulloch families of Georgia all sat for him.

The last two decades of Benbridge's life are relatively obscure. He was in Norfolk in 1799, according to Thomas Sully who said he received lessons in Benbridge's Norfolk studio in that year. His son Harry lived in Norfolk with his wife and ever increasing family from 1800 until 1810, when he moved to Baltimore. It is likely that Benbridge lived with his son's family in these years, as his health was not good. Sully described him as "portly", and from his own letters we know that Benbridge suffered terribly from asthma. The place and time of his death await discovery, but from records of Christ Church, Philadelphia, we know that Henry Benbridge was buried there on January 25, 1812.

The Charleston Renaissance Gallery

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery

Though born in Philadelphia, Henry Benbridge's career flourished in the South where he fulfilled portrait commissions for distinguished citizens and society families. Formally educated at the Philadelphia Academy, Benbridge also received early artistic training in his hometown, studying with the English portraitist John Wollaston. In 1764, having reached his majority, he moved to Rome to continue his artistic pursuits. He launched his formal career in London in 1769, where he exhibited two paintings at the 1770 Royal Academy Exhibition, including a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who was then residing in that city. Benbridge returned to Philadelphia in 1770, carrying with him letters of introduction from both Franklin and the noted artist Benjamin West.

In 1771, Benbridge moved with his wife Hetty Sage, a miniature painter, to Charleston, South Carolina. Wealthy Southern families often emulated their English cousins by commissioning fashionable portraits from leading artists, and prominent families from across South Carolina and Georgia kept Benbridge in high demand in the years before and after the American Revolution.

A colonial sympathizer, Benbridge was briefly imprisoned following the 1780 fall of Charleston to the British. By 1784, he was actively painting again in Charleston. The final two decades leading up to Benbridge's 1812 death in Philadelphia are relatively obscure, though he did work and teach in Norfolk, Virginia, giving lessons to Thomas Sully, among others.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

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About  Henry Benbridge

Born:  1743 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died:   1812 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Known for:  portrait and figure painting-miniature