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Lens [Laus] familylocked

(per. c. 1650–1779)
  • Katherine Coombs

Lens [Laus] family (per. c. 1650–1779), artists, was probably settled in England by Bernard [i] Lens (1630/31–1707/8), who was described by George Vertue as a 'Dutch Preacher' (Vertue, Note books, 5.5) ('4 or 5 books written in English by him … scriptural matters'), and as a 'painter' who died in England 'Feb 5. 1707/8. Aged 77. lyes buried in St. Brides London' (ibid., 5.62).

Michel Huber (1727–1804) noted that Bernard [ii] Lens (1659/60–1725) was 'fils de Bernard Lens, habile peintre en émail' ('son of Bernard Lens, skilled painter in enamel'; Huber, 9.90). Vertue noted that Bernard [ii] Lens was a 'mezsotintor scraper' (Vertue, Note books, 5.62) (there are collections of his mezzotints in the British Museum and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut) and that he also 'drew for engravers principally Mr Sturt [John Sturt, 1658–1730] … for plates books &c.' (ibid., 4.184). In 1697, with Sturt, he set up a drawing-school, one of the first in England, near the Hand and Pen, in St Paul's Churchyard, London, which continued until at least after 1710. In 1705 Lens was appointed drawing-master at Christ's Hospital, a charity school where drawing was taught as a vocational subject, for example, in mapping or navigation. Vertue noted that he 'dy'd 28 April 1725. aged 66—buried at St Brides—fleet Street' (ibid., 5.62), leaving several sons. John Lens (1683/4–c.1716), a drawing-master from 1703 at ‘Major’ John Ayres's school at the Hand and Pen, near St Paul's School, was portrayed by his brother Bernard [iii] Lens in a miniature inscribed 'John Laus, aet 24 Gunner. B. Laus aetat.26 fecit. March ye 24, 1708' (ex Sothebys, 25 May 1964). A younger son of Bernard [ii] Lens, Edward (c.1685–1749), succeeded his father as drawing-master at Christ's Hospital; on his death his son, John (b. 1725), applied unsuccessfully for the post, which was awarded to Alexander Cozens.

The most successful of Lens's sons was Bernard [iii] Lens (1682–1740). An inscription on his self-portrait in miniature (NPG) records his date of birth: 'Bernard Lens/Pictor … Born may:ye.29:1682'. In 1698 he was formally apprenticed to 'Sturt' (presumably his father's partner, John Sturt) of the Goldsmiths' Company, of which he himself chose to be made free only in 1729, the year in which his son Peter Paul Lens (b. 1714/15, d. in or after 1754) was apprenticed under him. On 30 November 1706, in Gray's Inn Chapel, Bernard [iii] Lens had married Katherine Woods (b. c.1681). They are known to have had at least three sons. Vertue noted that one of these, presumably the eldest, also called Bernard, was 'no Artist—but was promoted to some little office in the Exchequer' (Vertue, Note books, 5.63), apparently with the help of Horace Walpole. The work of Peter Paul and the third son, Andrew Benjamin Lens, is noticed below.

The work of Bernard [ii] Lens and his artist sons Bernard [iii] Lens and Edward Lens often overlapped, although Bernard [iii] Lens was the only miniature painter. It is often not clear which member of the family was responsible for any given piece of work. One example is a drawing manual, A New and Compleat Drawing Book (1750), which has traditionally been wholly attributed to the younger Bernard Lens, and yet the frontispiece describes 'Mr Lens' as 'Drawing Master to Christ's Hospital', a position in fact held by his father and brother Edward. The text and figural plates are adapted from other drawing manuals by, for example, Gérard de Lairesse and Charles-Alfonse Dufresnoy, and many of the engraved coastal and fortress scenes are after drawings by other members of the Lens family. As Bernard [iii] Lens also had at least two sons who became artists, the attribution of drawings by members of the Lens family is complex. Some drawings are signed by individual members of the family, but they so often copied each others' drawings that attribution of the often unsigned topographical pen and ink wash drawings must be uncertain. (Examples are in the British Museum and the Yale Center for British Art.) The variety of topographical work undertaken by Bernard [iii] Lens and his sons is reflected in the sale held at his death: 'His Catalog. of limnings drawings sold—22d June 1740/1 … Views of Bath … Wokeyhole—Bridgnorth Shropshire … Richmond … Portsmouth … Windsor … Eaton. Glastonbury Glocestershire shropshire—Rochester … Greenwich. London Hampton Court &c. London &c. different Exercise of the Granadiars, colourd' (Vertue, Note books 3.100; the last work is now in the V&A).

It can be equally unclear to which Lens a contemporary writer might be referring. In 1707 a letter written to Robert Harley, father of Edward Harley (later second earl of Oxford, a miniature collector and patron of both Vertue and Bernard [iii] Lens), stated:

You was pleasd to desire me to speak to a person that could teach your son, Mr Edwd, to draw. I have sent for Mr Lens, a very able and the best master we have in London—a sober, diligent man, and very carefull. His rate for teaching is a guinea entrance, and half-a-crown a time (for an hour's staying).

Goulding, 41

This letter could refer to Bernard [ii] or Bernard [iii] Lens, for by this date the latter was twenty-five, and throughout his career he worked as a fashionable drawing-master. Notable students included Horace Walpole, who in his own copy of Vertue's notes annotated a reference to him: 'was my master, H. W.' (Vertue, Note books, 5.62), and Lady Helena Percival (a landscape by her is in the British Museum). In addition to drawing, Bernard [iii] Lens taught miniature painting: among his pupils were Princess Mary, the daughter of George II and Queen Caroline (Mary's miniature of her sister Louisa is in the Royal Collection), and Catherine da Costa (miniatures by her of her family are held by the Jewish Museum, London).

In his notes Vertue usually referred to Bernard [iii] Lens as a 'limner'. This was the traditional term for a painter in watercolour, although during Lens's lifetime it gave way to the term 'painter in miniature' or 'miniature painter'. Vertue says that Lens was mistakenly designated 'enameller' on his appointment to the service of George I and George II, and explained that the mistake originated in the lord chamberlain's records: 'Mr Lens limner. Is calld his Majestyes Enameller. In the books of the chamberlains Office. & his warrant. Which was causd by Mr. Boit Enameller when he procurd the place, he got the stile to be alter'd from Limner to Enameller' (Vertue, Note books, 3.50). Lens was officially registered 'Painter in Enamell in Ordinary' on 16 January 1720. In his own, presumably later, inscription on a self-portrait (priv. coll.) he significantly replaced the incorrect designation 'enameller' with the Italian for limning, miniatura: 'Bernard Lens Pictore ad vivum. Aged : 37 : Fecit Oct ye : 18 : 1718. Painter in Minatura [sic] in Ordinary to his Majesty King George' (Goulding, cat. no. 148). Vertue added that 'Mr Lens has no Sallery' (Vertue, Note books, 3.50).

Bernard [iii] Lens's earliest-known dated miniature, Portrait of Dr Harris (1707; Yale U. CBA) is important for being the earliest dated miniature painted in Britain on ivory rather than the traditional vellum support. Lens pioneered the use of ivory in Britain, but it was Rosalba Carriera, a Venetian artist, who probably first used ivory in place of vellum as a support. Her self-portrait on ivory was accepted as her diploma piece for the Academy of St Luke in 1704. Dr Harris, painted only three years later, when Lens was twenty-five, is sufficiently competent not to be a first attempt at limning. It is not known whether Lens received tuition in traditional limning on vellum, but at this date limning was an established amateur pastime and he would not necessarily have been taught by a professional limner. Carriera never visited England, and there is no evidence that Lens travelled abroad. He probably heard of the use of ivory or saw examples of miniatures painted on ivory in the homes of clients and pupils who had travelled to Italy on the grand tour. He seems not to have understood Carriera's methods of working on the difficult ivory surface. He worked more cautiously, first using touches of graphite to sketch the sitter. Like Carriera he abandoned the seventeenth-century technique of laying in a ground, called a carnation, in the face, leaving the ivory as the ground. But he mixed his pigments with more gum, thus easing the adhesion between ivory and paint, and he worked the features in both stipple and hatching. The effect is harder, tighter, and less free than Carriera's work. Like Carriera he painted the background in solid colour, but unlike her he did not break it up and soften it with stipples, but occasionally added a few dry hatches. Both his technique and less assured draughtsmanship contributed to the stiffer appearance of his miniatures. None the less, it is evident that Lens was responsible for encouraging the use of ivory in Britain, not just through the example of his miniatures, but also through teaching.

Bernard [iii] Lens also made limned copies of old master paintings on vellum, continuing a respected tradition begun by Peter Oliver, who had made copies for Charles I of paintings in the king's collection. Vertue noted that one of Lens's pupils, Catherine da Costa, 'copy'd pictures that mr lens her instructor had coppyd … mostly all the remarkable pictures of fame in england painted by rubens Vandyke & other masters' (Vertue, Note books, 3.115). Large copies, such as Landscape with Bathers (V&A), after Vandervart, would have been expensive, and it is likely that they were commissioned by a collector rather than produced speculatively. There is a bill from Edward Harley for work commissioned from Bernard [iii] Lens: '1719. A large half length of Mathew Prior, Esqr., on a large skin of Vellum … after a French Pictor' (Goulding, 41) (priv. coll.). In contrast, it was possibly a speculative venture to paint a series of copies on vellum, with sixteenth-century style solid blue backgrounds, of kings and queens of England and including the lord protector, Oliver Cromwell (six examples are in the V&A). These are roughly painted and seem to have been produced rapidly, with some examples contributed by Andrew Benjamin Lens, the son of Bernard [iii] Lens. These miniatures probably appealed to collectors who wanted more expensive and ‘authentic’ versions of the popular engraved ‘heads’ published by, for example, Vertue. The most frequently encountered historical ‘head’ by Bernard [iii] Lens, also known in versions by his pupil Catherine da Costa, is that of a so-called Mary Queen of Scots (a version by da Costa is in Ham House, Surrey). Lens also copied Samuel Cooper's famous miniature of Oliver Cromwell; one example on vellum dated 1717 is in the Royal Collection, another on ivory dated 1723 is at Welbeck Abbey. Both are signed and inscribed with a note that they were taken from the original Cooper belonging to Thomas Frankland.

Bernard [iii] Lens collected historical miniatures, especially those by Samuel Cooper; Vertue noted that Lens 'has two or three heads, the womans faces only finisht, the finest I ever saw of Cooper' (Vertue, Note books, 1.108). He also advised collectors on the care of their collections. Notably he worked for Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford (whose collection of miniatures is housed today at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire). The simple stained black pear-wood frames he produced to house pieces from the earl's collection are still known today as 'Lens frames'.

Bernard [iii] Lens's knowledge of limnings made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is reflected in some of his ad vivum miniatures; for example, his portraits of the family of Richard Whitmore MP (two of which are in the V&A, the remainder illustrated in Christies' sale catalogue of 2 November 1971), have a flat blue background in imitation of the Elizabethan miniatures which he encountered in numerous collections. His portraits of contemporaries include miniatures of Mohawk and Mahican members of a group which made a historic visit to Queen Anne in London in 1710 (British Museum).

Lens's work on the traditional vellum support, where the vellum is laid onto card backed with gesso, shows his knowledge of seventeenth-century professional limning techniques, as in, for example, a self-portrait (NPG). However, it seems that he did not have a particular motivation in his choice of support, nor did he follow any apparent strategy or consistency with regard to the impact of that choice. Thus historical copies which could more appropriately be on vellum are on ivory, while some contemporary portraits are on vellum rather than the more modern ivory. During Lens's early career there were few other professional limners in London. Peter Cross (c.1645–1724) was still practising in 1707 (his Katherine Tufton (V&A) is dated 1707), the year that Lens painted his first known dated miniature. Vertue noted: 'Mr Zurick [Johann Zurich, c.1685–1735] … of Dresden … comeing to England about 1714 or 15 his generall employment was limning', but added that Zurich (whose work cannot be identified today) could not rise to equal those artists already 'established in reputation and merit, as mr Bernard lens. Mr. Rechter. [Christian Richter, 1682–1732, a Swedish limner] Mr Zinke enamaller' (Vertue, Note books, 3.76–7). Zurich was apparently the only painter of miniatures at this early date, apart from Lens, who painted on ivory, which Vertue noted later in 1735 was 'A manner much used of late years amongst the limners'.

Lens became a member of the Rose and Crown club, along with Zincke, Vertue, and William Hogarth. A painting of the Virtuosi of London, begun by John Smibert in 1724 but now known only from a marginal sketch in Vertue's Note Books, includes Lens, although he evidently was not present at the group sittings, being represented by a painting on an easel: 'in the large painting/piece of the Virtuosi of London … Lens on the Easel a profil' (Vertue, Note books, 3.24). Of the eighty-five members of the Rose and Crown club, half, including Lens, attended the academy in Queen Anne Street founded by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1711. Kneller's influence may be seen in a few of Lens's compositions: his miniature of a child called Jane Codd (V&A) borrows the somewhat awkward pose used by Kneller in his portrait of Mrs Voss and Child (engraved by I. Smith), and his miniature of George I (V&A) is copied from a print after a portrait by Kneller; the miniature is inscribed on the reverse with an exact transcription of the lettering on the print.

Vertue noted that Bernard [iii] Lens died:

Decemb. 1740—Christmas Eve … at his house near Hyde park Hospital—after his long Illness, being sweld (dropsical) by very slow and continud degres carryd him off. By a dropsy. he was buried at Kensington church. (born Oct. 18, 1681 [sic]. Ob 24 Decembr. 1740—aeta : 59—2 month—) leaving two sons professors of the Art of Painting limning—&c.

Vertue, Note books, 3.100

One of these sons was Andrew Benjamin Lens (c. 1713–c. 1779), miniature painter and drawing-master. His year of birth is inferred from a portrait of him by his father dated 1723 in which he appears to be about ten years old (V&A). He exhibited at the Society of Artists and the Free Society of Artists from 1764 until 1779. The other son was Peter Paul Lens (b. 1714/15, d. in or after 1754). His year of birth is inferred from a miniature of him aged fifteen and dated 1729. No works are known by P. P. Lens after about 1750, but the address given in an advert for a 'Lens, miniature painter' in the Public Advertiser (1 December 1754) implies that he was still active in 1754. P. P. Lens became notorious as a member between 1737 and 1738 of a 'hell-fire' club in Ireland called The Blasters, possibly in Dublin, which he visited about 1737. Vertue confused the identity and reputations of the two sons, but clearly meant P. P. Lens when he referred to 'Young Lens, calld the reprobate' (Vertue, Note books, 3.88). He later described him as 'An Ingenious Youth. Whose vile, athestical conversations and behaviour, publickly practised (for some such wicked blasphemous affair in Ireland. He was forc'd to fly away)' (ibid., 3.106). Other artists with the name of Lens are also known. A John Lens advertised three times in the Daily Advertiser during 1752–3 and offered his services in the issue of 14 September 1752 as teacher of drawing and miniature painting, while in the issue of 2 October 1753 he described himself as a 'miniature painter' and was promoting 'a new drawing book'. It is possible that this is the same John Lens (1703–1779) whose death was recorded in the Gentleman's Magazine (49, 1779, 566). He was a miniature painter who was engaged to teach drawing at the Revd d'Latournelle's academy in Norwich. He also taught watercolours and painting on silk until 1763, when he began to advertise as a land-steward. The Public Advertiser (7 August 1765) carried an advertisement by a Thomas Lens for 'Miniature Painting'. The relationship of these men to the Lens family of artists has not been established.


  • R. W. Goulding, ‘The Welbeck Abbey miniatures’, Walpole Society, 4 (1914–15) [whole issue]
  • J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery: early Georgian portraits, 2 vols. (1977)
  • M. Huber and C. G. Martini, Manuel des curieux et des amateurs de l'art, 9 (Zürich, 1808)
  • B. S. Long, British miniaturists (1929)
  • lord chamberlain's appointment books, 1714–33, TNA: PRO, LC 3/63–4
  • K. M. Sloan, ‘The teaching of non-professional artists in eighteenth-century England’, 2 vols., PhD diss., U. Lond., 1986, esp. chap. 2, appx c
  • E. Croft-Murray, ‘Catalogue of British drawings in the British Museum’, vol. 2, BM
  • J. Murdoch and others, The English miniature (1981)
  • A. Crookshank and the Knight of Glin [D. Fitzgerald], The watercolours of Ireland: works on paper in pencil, pastel and paint, c.1600–1914 (1994)


  • B. Lens, self-portrait, miniature, 1708, Ickworth House, Suffolk
  • B. Lens, self-portrait, miniature, 1721, NPG
  • B. Lens, miniature, 1723 (Andrew Benjamin Lens as a child), V&A
  • B. Lens, self-portrait, miniature, 1724, AM Oxf.
  • L. P. Biotard, line engraving, pubd 1750–51 (after B. Lens), BM; repro. in Drawing Book (1750–51)
[G. Vertue], , ed. K. Esdaile, earl of Ilchester, & H. M. Hake, 6 vols., Walpole Society, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 30 (1930–55); facs. repr. (1968)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
British Museum, department of prints and drawings, London