Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford KG PM (1676 - 1745) 1740c.

Studio of Jean-Baptiste Van Loo (1684-1745)

Portrait of Sir  Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford KG PM (1676 - 1745), Studio of Jean-Baptiste Van Loo
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
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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 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 pattern of conspicuous portrait display reached its height with the dozens of portraits of those great rivals, William Pitt and Charles James Fox in the late eighteenth century.

The present picture is one of the best known likenesses of Walpole. It was painted in about 1740, when the sitter was in his final years as Prime Minister, in the studio of Jean-Baptiste Van Loo. Van Loo, a French artist, had succeeded Charles Jervas as Walpole’s painter of choice after the latter’s death in 1739. Walpole is shown here in his Chancellor’s robes in a refreshingly honest depiction. George Vertue, the contemporary art historian, was a fan of Van Loo’s “great success in likenes [sic], naturally without flattery” but noted of Van Loo’s full-length original portrait of Walpole that it was “done too grosely”. Despite the very real evidence of Walpole’s physical largesse, this likeness became one of the most popular depictions of the premier. A fine full-length version can be found in the National Portrait Gallery, and a head and shoulders similar to the present example remains in 10 Downing Street today.
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