This portrait of Haydn, one of the best-known images of any great composer, is by an artist almost as obscure as his sitter was famous. Frustratingly few details of Thomas Hardy’s (1757–1804) background and career are known. He enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools at the end of 1778, where records show he had turned 21 in the previous June. He exhibited some 31 paintings at the Royal Academy from 1778 to 1798 — practically all portraits — and four portraits at the Society of Artists exhibition in 1790. The date of his death had been uncertain until now, but a previously overlooked obituary notice in The Gentleman’s Magazine of October 1804 states that he died ‘after a long illness’ on 14 September that year. His life prior to attending the RA schools was also a complete mystery, although another unnoticed source, the diary of the topographical artist and academician Joseph Farington (1747–1821), informs us that Hardy was born in Derbyshire and that he studied under Wright of Derby. (Entry dated 29 June 1805.) Farington adds that he ‘died aged 47 in consequence of a cold caught at the Academy while painting Copies of the Portraits of the King & Queen for Lawrence’, which is consistent with The Gentleman’s Magazine notice.
To add to the difficulties with biographical research, Hardy the portrait painter has sometimes been confused with another Thomas Hardy: the shoemaker, radical and founder of the London Corresponding Society, who lived 1752–1832. The mistake is partly understandable because Hardy the artist painted the politician John Horne Tooke, who was associated with Hardy the radical, and the latter two were both put on trail for high treason in 1794.
The origins of the Haydn portrait lie in the interconnection between the composer, Hardy, and a crucial third party: the music seller and publisher John Bland (c.1750–c.1840). Bland appears to have commissioned oil portraits of several leading musicians of the day from Hardy, although the details surrounding this are uncertain, and published the resulting engravings based upon them.Hardy’s sitters include a veritable who’s-who of musical figures active in London during the 1790s: Haydn, Muzio Clementi, Ignaz Pleyel, Wilhelm Cramer, Johann Peter Salomon, Samuel Arnold, and William Shield (the last apparently commissioned one of Bland’s business successors, Francis Linley). Hardy exhibited four of these portraits at the Royal Academy: Haydn and Salomon in 1792, Cramer in 1794, and Arnold in 1796. Hardy’s portrait of Cramer is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and his portraits of Haydn, Salomon and Shield are at the Royal College of Music. Best known by far of all these portraits is the one of Haydn, and the subsequent engraving, also by Hardy and published by Bland, has been widely reproduced and copied since it first appeared in early 1792.