|Oil on canvas
|42 x 38 inches 106.8 x 96.5 cm
The Frewen family collection, Brickwall House, Northiam East Sussex.
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This portrait of the great Whig statesman is an autograph variant of Reynolds’s portrait painted from sittings in 1763. A version was originally hung in Fox’s own collection at Holland House and is now in the possession of Viscountess Galway. It shows Fox towards the end of his career, very shortly before he retired from public life with the title of Baron Holland. The likeness is faithful to Fox’s imposing yet unprepossessing appearance, and records without flattery the pear-shaped, twelve-stone frame and heavy eyebrows that were the physical legacy to his more famous but less successful son Charles James.
Reynolds painted two portrait types of Fox between c.1762 and 1764. This portrait was begun before Fox received his peerage on April 16th 1763, and antedates the three-quarter length full-face composition (Viscountess Galway ex Holland House collection) in which Fox is shown again seated at a table, identified by his title on a paper that he is holding. Reynolds had painted ‘Mr Fox the Secretary at War’ some ten years previously according to a letter that Reynolds wrote to the sculptor Joseph Wilton1, but this portrait has not been traced. It was common practice for several versions of a significant commission to be made for distribution among the sitter’s extended family and political allies, and Reynolds’s accounts list payments received for copies of Fox’s portrait for his friends George Selwyn and ‘Mr Powel’ and for the gallery at Holland House at fifty pounds each2. These were copies of the 1763/64 portrait, but the cost is a reliable indication of the amount that would have been paid for the Frewen portrait, again purchased no doubt as a record of political association and friendship. The replicas cost as much as the prime version, an unusual circumstance that is an indication of their quality. For his part Lord Holland is said to have been less convinced of the painting’s execution, and feeling that it had been a rushed and expensive exercise asked Reynolds how long he had been in painting it. Reynolds reputedly answered, ‘All my life, my lord.’3
Fox approached his political career with an attitude of ruthless pragmatism. It is said that when informed in Paris in 1735 that he had been elected Member for Hindon he was
displeased, having then no interest at all in politics. He recognised, however, the immense potential of a political career for making money, and was able to pursue his twin desires, the accumulation of money and the attaining of a peerage. He supported Sir Robert Walpole and was rewarded by a succession of offices. In 1737 he was made Surveyor General of Works, then from 1743 to 1746 he was a Lord of the Treasury. In July of 1746 he was appointed a Privy Counsellor, and Secretary at War, a post he held until 1755. In October he was then appointed Secretary of State for the South, a member of the Cabinet and Leader of the House. It was during this period that he made what he felt was his only miscalculation, and vehemently opposed Lord Hardwicke’s Bill to regulate and tighten the marriage laws. He saw it as a rebuke to his own irregular marriage, and spoke so intemperately that he made an enemy of the Lord Chancellor. Rightly or not he saw this as a watershed in his career, and resolved never again to deal with any political matter from the perspective of personal principle.
In 1756 he resigned from the government, concerned that the chief minister Duke of Newcastle might try to make him a scapegoat for the naval debacle of the loss of Britain’s chief Mediterranean base Minorca, a disgrace considered so serious that the commander responsible, Admiral Byng, had been court-martialled and executed. Newcastle and Hardwicke both resigned and King George was faced with the hated prospect of Fox’s rival William Pitt the Elder in power. Fox was invited to form a government to avert this possibility, but recognised the unlikelihood of Pitt accepting to serve with him and the reigns of power were taken up by Pitt with the Duke of Devonshire as Prime Minister. From this moment Fox’s road to high office was blocked, and he accepted the subordinate office of Paymaster General of the Forces, which he held from 1757 to 1765. For as long as war with France continued this was perhaps the most profitable position in the government.
In 1762 he threw his support behind the Tory Prime Minister Lord Bute. Fox pursued this betrayal of the Whigs, his former friends, with great thoroughness and enthusiasm. Of his former party boss he said to Bute in 1762: ‘Strip the Duke of Newcastle of his three lieutenancies immediately. I''ll answer for the good effect of it, and then go on to the general rout, but let this beginning be made immediately.’ Further he wrote again to Bute: ‘The impertinence of our conquered enemies last night was great, but will not continue so if his majesty shows no lenity. But, my lord, with regard to their numerous dependents in crown employments, it behoves your lordship in particular to leave none of them. And I don''t care how much I am hated if I can say to myself, I did his majesty such honest and essential service.’4 The reward of this apostasy was a peerage in her own
right for his wife Lady Caroline in May 1762. She took the title Lady Holland after the Jacobean house in Kensington that the Foxes had rented since 1746. Fox retained his office as Paymaster General and was further made Leader of the House for a second
time in October 1762. In July of that year he had also received a reversion to the Clerkship of the Pells in Ireland, a sinecure worth £2,000 per annum that he left to his sons until it was sold shortly after 1774, along with Fox’s seat at Kingsgate5, by Charles James to meet gambling debts.
In February 1763 Fox worked the party machine through bribery and emoluments with sufficient ease to secure the passing of the Peace of Paris. His attempt to purge his political opponents and quondam friends had left him virtually friendless in the Commons. In April 1763 Fox finally received the peerage that he craved, though not the earldom that he had been soliciting for much of his career, even to the extent of writing to the King with a request for the honour in 1766. In 1765 he was deprived of his office of Paymaster General, and was open to allegations of peculation and mismanagement. In 1769 the Lord Mayor presented the king with a petition from the livery of the City of London against his ministers, in which Fox was referred to as ‘the public defaulter of unaccounted millions.’6 The King defended Holland from proceedings, and it has never been established whether or not he acquired his fotune by defrauding the public purse. Conventions during the period were ill-defined, and it was arguable that the ability to invest the enormous sums of public money that the Paymaster General handled for personal profit was an acceptable perquisite of the position. After Holland’s death, however, his executor reimbursed some £200,000 to public funds7. The greatest part of Holland’s unpopularity stemmed from Whig resentment at a turncoat, and from that side of Holland’s character suggested by Macaulay he wrote that he was ‘the most unpopular of the statesmen of his time not because he sinned more than any of them, but because he canted less.’8 King George II recognised this strange integrity in an earlier remark, when he said of Fox: ‘I’ll do him justice, I don’t believe he ever did tell me a lie,’ adding ‘he is the only man that ever came into my closet that did not.’9
Henry Fox’s public and private characters were distinct, and by the date of this painting he was as loved by family and friends as he was detested by the country at large. To his immediate circle he was a man of wry and sometimes mordant humour. When on his deathbed in 1774 he was told that his friend George Selwyn had called wishing to see him. He replied, in a blackly humorous reference to Selwyn’s alleged necrophilia: ‘If Mr. Selwyn calls again show him up: if I am alive I shall be delighted to see him; and if I am dead he would like to see me.’10 He was single-minded and relished sensation, never better demonstrated than in his elopement in 1744 with his second wife Lady Caroline Lennox (1723 – 1774), daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. Richmond, the grandson of King Charles II, considered that Fox’s family placed him beneath consideration as a
match for a Duke’s daughter. Despite the fact that his father Sir Stephen Fox (1627 – 1716) had been a loyal servant of King Charles II in his exile and had made a fortune estimated by John Evelyn at £200,00010 from his Treasury employments Richmond
would not forget that Sir Stephen had begun his career as Steward to the Duke of Northumberland. Richmond and Fox were also political colleagues, however, and despite what was at first a bitter estrangement the two men were warm friends by 1749.
Fox was, in any case, the father of the Duke’s grandsons, in whose treatment Fox was always at his most indulgent. His elder son Stephen, who briefly succeeded as 2nd Lord Holland in 1774, was permitted to go to the theatre as much as he wished from the age of six, whilst Charles James was endlessly humoured. On one occasion he told his father that he intended to take apart a pocket watch, to which Fox’s only response was, ‘well if you must, you must.’ Another time he allowed the infant Charles James to bathe in a basin of cream before an astonished political dinner party at Holland House11. He continued to allow the same licence to his sons in adulthood, and much of his fortune was spent in settling their exorbitant gambling debts. Holland House was conspicuous, even notorious, for the libertarian environment in which the Fox children were reared and allowed to express themselves. Of Charles James he said, ‘Let nothing be done to break his spirit. The world will do that business fast enough’ whilst Lady Caroline wrote to her sister Emily Countess of Kildare – later Duchess of Leinster – ‘you know this is reckoned such a house of liberty for children.’12 It is difficult, therefore, to submit Fox’s character to too harsh a judgment, since his lack of political scruple is scarcely to be distinguished by a modern observer from the conventional behaviour of his age, whilst the affection that he demonstrated as a husband and a father remains quite exceptional. Lord Holland died at Holland House on July 1st 1774 at the age of sixty eight, and his wife, who was suffering from cancer of the stomach, survived him by only twenty three days.
1. ed. John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds Yale 2000. p. 14
2. David Mannings Sir Joshua Reynolds A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings Yale 2000. Text volume p.204
3. Dictionary of National Biography
5. This house, still standing at Kingsgate by the north Foreland though much altered, was built in emulation of Cicero’s Formian villa. Wraxall describes it as ‘a fine estate and a magnificent house, with a colonnade such as Ictinus might have raised by order of Pericles.’ (Memoirs quoted in G.E.C. Complete Peerage 1912 Vol. VI p.542.
6. Dictionary of National Biography
7. Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA London 1899 Vol II p.472
8. Complete Peerage loc. cit.
10. Dictionary of National Biography
11. Stella Tillyard Aristocrats Vintage 1994 p.88