Hone is born in Dublin on April 24, 1718, the son of a Dublin-based Dutch merchant. He moves to England as a young man and, after marrying Molly Earle, daughter of the John Campbell, 4th Duke of Argyll, in 1742, eventually settles in London, by which time he has acquired a reputation as a portrait painter. While his paintings are popular, his reputation is particularly enhanced by his skill at producing miniatures and enamels. He interrupts his time in London by spending two years (1750–52) studying in Italy.
As a portrait painter, several of Hone’s works are now held at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His sitters include magistrate Sir John Fielding and Methodist preacher John Wesley, and General Richard Wilford and Sir Levett Hanson in a double portrait. He often uses his son John Camillus Hone (1745-1836) in some of his works, including his unique portrait of “The Spartan Boy,” painted in 1774.
Hone courts controversy in 1775 when his satirical picture The Conjurer (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) is seen to attack the fashion for Italian Renaissance art and to ridicule Sir Joshua Reynolds, leading the Royal Academy to reject the painting. It also originally includes a nude caricature of fellow Academician Angelica Kauffman in the top left corner, which is painted out by Hone after Kauffman complains to the academy. The combination of a little girl and an old man has also been seen as symbolic of Kauffman and Reynolds’s closeness, age difference, and rumoured affair. To show that his reputation is undamaged, Hone organises a one-man retrospective in London, the first such solo exhibition of an artist’s work.
The Hone family is related to the old Dutch landed family the van Vianens, who hold the hereditary title of Vrijheer. His great-grand-nephew shares the same name and is also a notable Irish painter, known as Nathaniel Hone the Younger (1831–1917). He is also a relation to painter Evie Hone.
Nathaniel Hone the Elder dies in London at the age of 66 on August 14, 1784.
(Pictured: Oil on canvas self-portrait by Nathaniel Hone, circa 1760)