Benjamin Franklin was a frequent subject for eighteenth-century artists, but the portrait by Mason Chamberlin (Philadelphia Museum of Art), upon which this print was based, was one of Franklin's personal favorites.1 Although his career as a great statesman would come later, Franklin was already famous as a printer, writer, inventor, and scientist. By the time the Chamberlin portrait was painted in 1762, Franklin had been in London since his appointment as agent from the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1757.2
Mason Chamberlin studied art under Francis Hayman (1708–1776), an important painter in mid-eighteenth-century England, and then began to paint portraits "with tolerable success, some of which possess great force and semblance."3 While most of Chamberlin's sitters hailed from the middle class, he did occasionally paint more famous subjects, such as Franklin (1762), two royal princes (1771), and the eminent surgeon Dr. William Hunter (1781). As a founding member of the Royal Academy in London (1769), Chamberlin exhibited there until his death in 1787. However, the portrait of Franklin was first exhibited at the Society of Artists (London) in 1763. In that same year, Franklin, who was quite pleased with the portrait, commissioned a copy of it for his son, William (1731-1813), who had been recently appointed as governor of New Jersey.4
A print soon followed, and the engraver chosen was Edward Fisher, an Irishman, who had started his career as a hatter before taking up engraving and moving to London. During Fisher's years of artistic activity, between 1758 and 1781, he engraved over sixty portraits, including those of the famous actor David Garrick and the states-man William Pitt.5
Franklin's son ordered one hundred impressions of the print of his father to sell as a commercial venture, but Franklin himself used it to send to friends and correspondents, "it being the only way in which I am now likely ever to visit."6 The Society's impression has a label attached to the back which states: "From Dr FRANKLIN / To M. Byles / Rec'd MAR. 15, 1764." Mather Byles (1706-1788), was a minister, poet, amateur scientist, as well as an overseer of Harvard College. Byles, who had known Franklin since they were boys together in Boston, was the driving force behind Harvard awarding an honorary degree to Franklin in 1753.7 This print is the earliest copy known to have been given by Franklin to one of his friends.
In the print, as in the portrait, Franklin is depicted as a scholar interrupted from his writing. He is plainly dressed in a dark coat and vest with a white collar at his neck, his sleeve ruffles bent back. He is seated, slightly turned in a chair in three-quarter view, close to the picture plane, but he gazes away from the viewer. The powdered wig sits upon an unidealized face in which every wrinkle and mole is evident.
The most interesting aspects of the image are, not the figure of Franklin, but the scene outside his window and the equipment beside him. Chamberlin and Fisher included depictions of three of Franklin's electrical experiments, which Franklin carried out between 1747 and 1753.[See the online presentation of a letter describing one experiment.] To the left are two bells. As he explained to a friend: "I erected an Iron Rod to draw the Lightning down into my House, in order to make some Experiments on it, with two Bells to give Notice when the Rod should be electrified."8 The second experiment concerns two balls suspended from the bells and was recorded by Franklin's associate Ebenezer Kinnersley (1711-1778), in his published lectures of his electrical experiments (Philadelphia, 1752): "Suspend . . . two Cork Balls from silk Threads, & electrify them; & they will immediately separate & fly asunder to a great distance."9
The most dramatic experiment is seen outside the window, where a lightning storm has caused the ruin of several buildings. Franklin developed the lightning rod to prevent such destruction and gave instructions for its use in his Poor Richard's Almanac for 1753. Louise Ambler has noted that the structures pictured are not actually buildings but models which Franklin used to demonstrate the practical application of the lightning rod. Similar models designed by Franklin are preserved at Harvard University.10 Thus, the print by Fisher serves both a didactic and a visual function, which may explain its enduring appeal to Franklin.
1. Charles Coleman Sellers. "Catalogue of the Society's Exhibition of Portraits of Benjamin Franklin." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 100. 1956, p. 369.
2. Richard Dorment. British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Seventeenth Through the Nineteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue, Philadephia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 1986, p. 38.
3. Edward Edwards. Anecdotes of Painters Who Have Resided or Been Born in England. London, 1808, pp. 121-122.
4. Richard Dorment. British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Seventeenth Through the Nineteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue, Philadephia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 1986, p. 38; Charles Coleman Sellers. Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven, 1962, p. 58.
5. Charles Coleman Sellers. Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven, 1962, p. 219; Leslie Stephens and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography, 22 vols. 1885-1901. London, 1959, 7:56.
6. Charles Coleman Sellers. Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven, 1962, p. 58; Leonard W. Labaree and William B. Willcox, eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 27 vols. New Haven, 1959, 11:88-89.
7. Louise Todd Ambler. Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective. Exhibition catalogue, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., 1975, p.48.
8. Leonard W. Labaree and William B. Willcox, eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 27 vols. New Haven, 1959, 5:69.
9. I. Bernard Cohen, ed. Benjamin Franklin's Experiments: A New Edition of Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity. Cambridge, Mass., 1941, p. 416.
10. Louise Todd Ambler. Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective. Exhibition catalogue, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., 1975, p.72.