Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole KG PM (1676 - 1745) 1730c.

Charles Jervas (1675–1739)

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole KG PM (1676 - 1745), Charles Jervas
Oil on canvas
18th Century
49 x 39 inches, 125 x 99 cm
Commissioned for William Fortescue (1687-1749); Rt. Hon Spencer Walpole MP (1806-1898) by the mid-19th century; H. Birkbeck by the 20th century.
John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, (London 1977), text vol. p201, illus. vol. 2 pl. 585.
New Gallery, London 1891, as by Jervas
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Sir Robert Walpole is renowned as the ‘first’ Prime Minister, and is regarded as one of the most significant figures in British history. Though he did not actually hold that office in name (for the term was then one of abuse) he certainly held it in fact, and dominated early eighteenth century politics with quasi-dictatorial powers for over twenty years. He is known to have enjoyed the trappings of office; he was the first to live and work in 10 Downing Street, and, through means that are still not totally clear, became exceedingly rich.

Walpole was also amongst the first politicians to actively promote and disseminate his own image for political ends. At the height of his power as Prime Minister portraits of Walpole were displayed as objects of whig loyalty, replacing in part the role of royal portraiture. This picture is an earlier likeness of Walpole, and was most almost certainly commissioned by him as a gift for William Fortescue, one of his closest friends and colleagues. Unlike many of the later portraits of Walpole, this likeness is unique, and has not been replicated in other versions.

William Fortescue first established himself as a successful barrister at the Inner Temple. In about 1724, he was appointed as one of Walpole’s advisers when the latter became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and from then remained close to the coming man of British politics. In 1727 he was himself elected to the Commons under Walpole’s influence, while in 1730, the year this portrait is thought to have been painted, was appointed King’s Counsel and attorney-general to Frederick, Prince of Wales. He later went on to become Master of the Rolls. The present portrait, therefore, was clearly a symbol of friendship and gratitude, and refers in the inscription at bottom left to Walpole’s patronage.

Charles Jervas was the natural choice to paint the present portrait, for he was close to both the sitter and the recipient. Jervas was Walpole’s favourite artist, painting portraits of his family and whig friends such as Lord Townshend. He first painted Walpole in about 1708, when he was then Secretary for War. It was at the urging of Walpole, Townshend and the Duke of Newcastle that King George I was persuaded to appoint Jervas, in 1723, as his Principal Painter, a position that established his domination of portrait painting in early eighteenth century Britain, and assured his status as Kneller’s successor. Jervas was also well known in for his literary talents (his translation of Don Quixote is still in print today), and would therefore have known Fortescue well, for they were both friends with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope (whom he taught to paint).

The present work demonstrates well Jervas’ fresh and bold use of colour, which he developed after studying old masters in Italy in the early 1700s. Walpole is shown wearing the Garter star and sash, with the First Lord of the Treasury’s purse on the table beside him. The architecture in the background may well relate to the Houses of Parliament. This picture later belonged to one of Walpole’s descendants, Spencer Walpole MP, who was Home Secretary under the Conservative Lord Derby.
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