Acquisition Appeal | Thomas Lawrence’s Unfinished Portrait Wellington

Posted in museums by Editor on November 11, 2016

An appeal from the NPG:

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Unfinished Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1829, oil on canvas, 94.3 × 74.3 cm (Private Collection).

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Unfinished Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1829, oil on canvas, 94.3 × 74.3 cm (Private Collection).

The National Portrait Gallery has launched a public appeal to acquire Sir Thomas Lawrence’s unfinished final portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, it was announced today, Thursday 3 November 2016. The portrait has been offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £1.3 million. The appeal was kick started today by a donation of £350,000 from the Art Fund, whose generous support means that alongside the Gallery’s own funds, £1 million of the total has already been raised.  The Gallery has £300,000 to raise by spring 2017.

The Gallery has no other significant portrait of the Duke in its Collection, an omission of one of the most iconic and popular figures in British history. The Gallery has been seeking to secure such a portrait since it opened in 1856. This work is one of only two world-class portraits of Wellington ever likely to come up for sale. The leading artist of his age Sir Thomas Lawrence made eight portraits of Wellington and was the Duke’s definitive image maker.

Started in 1829, the year Wellington was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and in which he fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea over the issue of Catholic emancipation, the unfinished portrait shows him in civilian dress with only his black collar and white stock visible. It was commissioned at the height of Wellington’s political career when he was Prime Minister. At the time he was closely involved in the legislation around catholic emancipation and deeply opposed to the reform of the House of Commons. Earlier in the decade he had been involved in the delicate negotiations between the Prince Regent and the Prince’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline. He also represented British interests at the Congress of Verona in 1822, one of a series of conferences on European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars.

The large oil-on-canvas portrait was commissioned a year after Wellington had become Tory Prime Minister by Sarah, Countess of Jersey, a leading political hostess and supporter of the Tories in the 1820s. Initially dedicating her social gatherings to the cause of the Whig party, in the late 1820s Lady Jersey switched her allegiance to the Tories, with Wellington becoming one of her favourites. She believed herself to be one of his confidantes, but he mistrusted her ability to keep a secret: earlier in life her loquacity had earned her the nickname ‘Silence’.

At Lawrence’s death in 1830 the portrait remained unfinished. But unlike many other clients, Lady Jersey refused to have it finished by a studio assistant. On hearing that the Duke of Wellington had fallen from power in 1830, Lady Jersey burst into tears in public. She reportedly ‘moved heaven and earth’ against the Reform Act 1832 which Wellington had also opposed.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “We have been searching for a portrait that can do justice to this iconic British hero since 1856. The lack of a suitable depiction of the Duke of Wellington has long been identified as the biggest gap in our collection. If we can raise the funds this remarkable painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence will be on permanent display and free for over two million visitors to enjoy each year.”

Dr Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director, says: “The National Portrait Gallery will make a fine home for this intensely compelling portrait of Wellington. We are pleased to have made a major grant towards its purchase, and hope the public will support the appeal to raise the remaining funds. This is a very important national acquisition.”

Dr Lucy Peltz, Senior Curator, 18th-Century Portraits and Head of Collections Displays (Tudor to Regency), National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “This is a compelling portrait of one of the most famous figures in early nineteenth-century Britain. Lawrence was a superlative portrait painter with the flair and talent to capture surface glamour and deeper currents. This unfinished portrait is shot with psychological insight.”

Dan Snow, historian, broadcaster and co-author of The Battle of Waterloo Experience, says: “The ‘Iron Duke’ is one of the towering figures of British history. He never lost a battle, reshaped Europe, and dominated Britain until his death. His career and legacy are intimately involved with the development of the United Kingdom. Now, more than 200 years after his most famous victory at the Battle of Waterloo it’s time we helped the National Portrait Gallery win the day.”

The painting was lent to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions staged in 2015 to mark the bicentenary year of the Battle of Waterloo. Prior to its loan to the Gallery from a private collection for a short period of display just before the exhibition opened, the portrait, which is in excellent condition, had not been on public view for any significant period since it was painted.



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