Guy Head, Sir John Coxe Hippisley (1746–1825)

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All Rights Reserved)


Country House
Mells Manor
Sir John Coxe Hippisley (1746–1825)
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Overall height: 98 cm, Overall width: 64 cm
Guy Head (1760-1800)
Catalogue Number


The present portrait of John Coxe Hippisley was painted in Rome, towards the end of the sitter’s second Italian sojourn, from March 1793 to May 1795. Hippisley’s activity in Italy – especially after 1795–6 and Napoleon’s invasion and annexation of Italy as his personal kingdom – was, as Raymond Asquith has noted, in effect a ‘deniable’ diplomatic mission to the Vatican and the Pope in support of British interests in the Mediterranean. Through William Hamilton in Naples, Britain had diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; but, being a Protestant state, it did not at that time have diplomatic relations with the Pope or the ‘Papist’ authorities in Rome, which is why Hippisley’s was an ‘unavowed’ mission, rather than a formal diplomatic posting. 

At Mells there is a large archive relating to Hippisley’s relations and correspondence with Pope Pius VI, Cardinal Salvini (Secretary of State) and many others, some in the anti-French opposition to the Vatican in those years but also across all levels of Italian society and involving many agents and factors of the Vatican (relating for example to military and naval fortifications in the Adriatic and elsewhere, as well as agricultural innovations in Etruria and Lazio). It was as a direct result of Hippisley’s efforts that the old Papal States (abolished by Napoleon) and Rome supplied the British fleet in the Mediterranean with all kinds of supplies (meat, grain, powder, shot, port facilities, clothing), as well as a stream of reports through named papal intermediaries. These were not inconsiderable achievements for one man to pull off after years of indifferent or even hostile relations between London and Rome; and, as Raymond Asquith observes, it is the sort of diplomatic work that can only be successful when a real degree of personal trust between the parties can have been successfully built.1 

Hippisley’s form of attire in the present portrait – a dark blue jacket with engraved brass buttons and matching tan waistcoat and breeches – suggests that he is wearing some form of unofficial diplomatic dress. He is seated before a swag of red drapery, with a view of St Peter’s, Rome, and the Vatican palace in the background. In his right hand he holds a document inscribed ‘Pro Memoria Per I Collegi Naz.’, possibly, as Brinsley Ford suggested, a reference to support he had given to the English Catholic seminary in Rome.2 In the lower left is the reproduction of a design enclosed in a letter from Pope Pius VI to Coxe Hippisley on 26 April 1795, in which the pope granted him the honour of combining the emblems of Rome with the arms of Hippisley. The words on the design, ‘CONCORDIA PERPETUAE’, and the inscription, ‘Dal Vaticano 26 Aprile 1795’, affirm that the portrait must have been commissioned specifically as a result of the papal honour bestowed on Hippisley.3

The attribution of the portrait to Guy Head was established by Brinsley Ford via correspondence of the director of the French Academy in Rome, Joseph-Benoît Suvée, who in December 1795 singled out Head as an English artist ‘qui se distingue beaucoup, tant dans les portraits que dans l’histoire’.4 Among portraits by Head that he singled out for attention were those of Thomas and Henry Hope, the infant son of Lady Elizabeth Webster, and John Coxe Hippisley.

Guy Head (1760–1800) was the son of a butcher from Carlisle. He travelled to Italy with wife and growing family in 1787 and was resident in Rome from 1788 to 1798, also spending time in Bologna, Florence and Parma, working as a portraitist and history painter. Head was also recognised as an accomplished copyist of old master paintings and as a collector of modern pictures, old masters and antiquities. Of his portraits, the sculptor Christopher Hewetson remarked, ‘most of them whole lengths, painted in his usual style, and with the most enormous Cravats and marvellous tight Britches’.5 In October 1792 Head was elected accademico di merito of the Accademia di S. Luca, Rome. In 1798, as the French army entered Rome, Head and his family evacuated first to Naples and then to Palermo. They arrived back in England in 1799. Head died suddenly the following year.

A second version of Head’s portrait of Hippisley has emerged recently, through an auction house in Dublin.6 This version is also inscribed and dated 1795. In the sale it is attributed to the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740–1808). Hamilton, like Head, was active in Rome but he left in 1791, four years before the present portrait was painted. The second version, it is suggested here, is possibly a copy made by Head in Rome or, more likely, by another artist on Hippisley’s return to England.

by Martin Postle


  1. I am grateful to Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, for supplying the present summary of Hippisley’s political activities in Rome in the mid-1790s, as well as information on the related material in the Mells Manor Archive: private communication, 5 July 2020.

  2. Brinsley Ford, ‘Sir John Coxe Hippisley: An Unofficial English Envoy to the Vatican’, Apollo Magazine, vol. 99, January–June 1974, pp. 444, 445 n. 21.

  3. Ibid., p. 444.

  4. Ibid., and p. 445, n. 22.

  5. John Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701–1800, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 479.

  6. Coolatin House, Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, Durrow, Co. Laois, 28 June 2016 (310). This portrait, which is bigger than the Mells version, measures 144 x 117 cm.


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