For some inexplicable reason the National Portrait Gallery, of which I am a trustee, doesn’t have a significant portrait of the Duke of Wellington. There’s one rather stiff picture in oil by Robert Home from when he was a young soldier in India and a few watercolours of him in retirement, but weirdly none at all of the vigorous statesman and victor of Waterloo at the height of his prestige and powers. This is astounding considering that — apart from the Duke of Marlborough — Wellington was by far the greatest soldier Britain has ever produced, and moreover one who went on to become prime minister.
Imagine the excitement in the gallery, therefore, when the opportunity arose to buy one of the greatest portraits of the Iron Duke ever made, nothing less than the last of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s iconic pictures of him, painted in 1829 when he was prime minister. It was the year before Lawrence’s death but, as the portrait shows, both artist and sitter were at the height of their powers. Lawrence, who after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s death became Britain’s foremost portrait painter, had already painted Wellington eight times, and this one illustrates the brilliance of both men in their respective fields. The portrait that the NPG has been offered — the unfinished ‘Jersey’ portrait — gives us the deepest insight both into Wellington’s personality and Lawrence’s approach to portraiture.
The mental image we all have of Wellington — the one of him with his arms folded, in complete control of his environment, that used to be on the £5 note — derives from Lawrence, who was his principal ‘image-maker’. This large oil-on-canvas ‘Jersey’ portrait was commissioned by Sarah Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who was an admirer and close friend of Wellington’s, and in her superb biography of the post-Waterloo Wellington, Pillar of State, Elizabeth Longford doesn’t exclude the possibility that she might have been one of his many lovers.
Her nickname was ‘Silence’ because she was such a notorious gossip, but she didn’t speak about the exact nature of her relationship with him. On hearing of the Duke’s fall from power in 1830, the Whig-turned-Tory Lady Jersey burst into tears in public, and from the way he teased her I suspect that this was more than just the normal Wellingtonian flirtation with women, so this portrait might well be a love-token too. It certainly took time to sit for, a notable commitment from a busy prime minister.
After Lawrence’s death in 1830, Lady Jersey — unusually for the day — refused his executor’s offer to have the portrait finished by a studio assistant. This has turned out to be an inspired choice, because the work’s unfinished state increases the emphasis on the sitter’s features and offers an insight into Wellington’s personality as well as helping to document Lawrence’s working practices in the last year of his life. ‘This is a compelling portrait of one of the most famous figures in early 19th century Britain,’ according to Dr Lucy Peltz, the gallery’s head of Tudor to Regency collections displays. ‘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.’ It’s also in excellent condition; as fresh as when it was painted, and had never gone on public display before 2013.
Although he was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1829, it was a difficult year for Wellington, whose premiership was dogged both by the issues of Catholic emancipation — which he reluctantly supported and that year had to fight a duel with the Earl of Winchelsea over — and also of the widening of the franchise, which he resolutely opposed. The look he gives in the Lawrence portrait is not unlike the firm one he gave his Whig opponents in the House of Lords when turning down their demands, but Peltz has also detected an intimacy and even vulnerability about this portrait, perhaps due to its unfinished state. One thing is certain; the National Portrait Gallery, which has 2.2 million visitors annually, must get it. It would become a prime fixture in the Regency galleries.
The portrait is one of only two world-class portraits of Wellington that are in private hands and will ever be available to the NPG, so we have launched an appeal for £300,000 to secure it for the nation. It has been offered to the gallery for £1.3 million — far less than its market value — but with a generous donation of £350,000 from the Art Fund and a contribution from the Gallery’s own funds, £1 million of the total has already been raised. The gallery has been looking for just such a portrait since it opened in 1856, and the year after the Waterloo bicentenary seems a great time finally to acquire it for the nation that the Duke Wellington risked his life in so many battles to defend.
To donate to the appeal, please go to npg.org.uk/wellington