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.