Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), c.1700 

Edmond Lilly (d.1716)

Portrait of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), c.1700, Edmond Lilly
Oil on canvas
17th Century
61 ¾ x 41 ¾ in (157 x 106 cm)
Possibly, the “Whole Length Portrait of the Duke of Gloucester, Son to Queen Anne” sold from Pembroke House, 13th May 1823, as by Kneller.
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This portrait is a rare likeness of Prince William, son of Queen Anne. Until recently, it was miss-identified as showing the first Duke of St Albans, illegitimate son of Charles II. But the subject is confirmed by another, larger, version of the picture which remains in the Royal Collection today, at Hampton Court. The artist, Edmond Lilly, was the favoured court painter of Queen Anne, and was commissioned by her to paint state portraits and other members of the Royal Family.

William, Anne’s only son, was the last recognised heir of the Stuart dynasty. Although he died at the age of eleven, soon after this portrait was painted, his brief life assumed an immense political importance. In the face of the omnipresent threat posed by the Catholic Stuart, or ‘Jacobite’, claimants to the English throne (the exiled James II and, after 1701, his son the titular James III), there was an almost desperate need for a crop of healthy heirs to continue the Protestant Stuart succession. Anne, James II’s daughter, came under enormous pressure to breed, particularly after the death of her childless sister Queen Mary II. Matters were not helped by her frail health, nor her rumoured reliance on alcohol (she was known as ‘Brandy Nan’). Sadly, of her eighteen pregnancies, only one child, William, survived beyond the age of one. Most of her pregnancies ended in miscarriage.

William, then, was the monarchy’s great Protestant hope. He was regularly presented to the press and public as the government sought to create a popular identity for him. This portrait would have been part of that effort, just as Lilly painted other variants of his full-length portrait of Queen Anne for her political adherents (such as the example now at Blenheim Palace). However, like his mother, William suffered frequently from ill health, and appears to have had developmental problems. He was unable to walk properly until he was five, and even towards the end of his life had occasionally to be fed by a nurse at meals. Nevertheless, evidence does survive of an intelligent and amusing young boy who took a keen interest in politics and the army. From his home in Kensington Palace, William followed closely the military campaigns of his uncle, William III, and, indulging in his love of all things ceremonial (he is seen in this portrait wearing the robes of a Garter Knight) even formed a small ‘army’ of his own, with a company of some ninety children.

Despite his poor health, William’s death in 1700 from smallpox came as a political shock. The government’s response, as they scrambled to find an acceptable Protestant heir to William III, was to pass the 1701 Act of Settlement, one of the most important documents in the English constitution. The Act, by requiring all monarchs to be Protestant, and settling the throne on the Hanoverian descendants of Electress Sophia, granddaughter of James I, excluded the Catholic Stuart line. It also led to the effective creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, for the Scots, unhappy at being dictated to by a London Parliament, attempted to resist the terms of the Act. As a result, the Act of Union was passed in 1707, dissolving the separate, or perhaps more troublesome, Scottish Parliament.
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