Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Charles, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805) 

Robert Home (1752-1834)

Portrait of Charles, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), Robert Home
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63 cm)
 
Charles Cornwallis was one of Britain’s leading military commanders and statesman in the late eighteenth century. He is best known as the British army’s second-in-command during the American War of Independence, and for the subsequent decisive surrender at Yorktown in 1781. This portrait shows Cornwallis during his time as Governor General of India.

Cornwallis was first and foremost a soldier, and entered the army as a lowly ensign in 1756. He spent a number of years studying military tactics on the continent, and it was there that he saw his first action, fighting as a volunteer in the Prussian army in numerous battles between 1758-61. In the few short years of peace that followed, Cornwallis tried his hand at politics, and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1762. He was a traditional Whig, instinctively against overweening monarchical power and ‘big’ government. He particularly opposed Britain’s attempts to extend power of the Colonies (America) and voted against the infamous Stamp Act. But he was no radical, and was scrupulously loyal to the King personally. It was principally for this reason - for he was then no great force politically - that he was granted a number of small posts and offices, such as Constable of the Tower of London. No further promotion followed, for his marriage in 1768 to Jemima Tulikens, a noted beauty, led Cornwallis away from politics, and into comfortable seclusion at Culford Park in Suffolk.

The outbreak of the American war of independence in 1775 ended Cornwallis’s life of settled domesticity. He immediately volunteered to suppress the revolutionaries, and sailed in early 1776 from Ireland as Major-General in command of seven regiments. His sharp tactical excellence, and the battle-readiness of troops whom he had personally commanded for over a decade, gained him a prompt victory over George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in August, and thus helped win New York for the British. Cornwallis was actively involved in the fighting himself. There followed further victories, most notably at Brandywine in 1777.

However, Cornwallis will always be associated with the catastrophic defeat at Yorktown in October 1781. His initial plan had been to fight an aggressive series of battles in Virginia, but he was ordered by Sir Henry Clinton to establish a stronghold at Yorktown, and await reinforcements from the Royal Navy. Washington, on hearing of Cornwallis’ position at this exposed point midway up the Chesapeake Bay, and emboldened by the presence of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet, ordered a decisive attack. The siege was shortlived, and the surrender of seven thousand men (about a quarter of the total British force in America) ended Britain’s last chances of victory in the war. Lord North, the then Prime Minister, resigned, and the incoming Government sued for peace.

Cornwallis was not personally held responsible for the Yorktown debacle. The British effort had been hampered from the outset by the perennial problems of communication and supply, and there was also the symptomatic distraction of squabbling commanders, who were by turns hostile and incompetent. Cornwallis was regarded as something of a heroic failure, and, in the best British tradition, was thus treated almost as a victor.

His posting to India as Governor-General in 1786 was clearly a promotion, and it was a promotion deserved. In a society where military status and rank were usually bought, and rarely earned, there were frighteningly few really able British commanders. Cornwallis was one of those few, and was proud of his disdain for corruption and ‘jobbery’. He took steps to route out such practices when he arrived in India, though he was also condemnatory of similar perceived vices in the native population. His greatest legacy in India is the first defeat of Tipu Sultan in the South.

Cornwallis returned to Britain in 1795 to take a seat in Pitt the Younger’s Cabinet as master-general of the ordinance, with the specific task of preparing for the expected French invasion. He was later given two additional offices, as commander-in-chief and Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. Two months after his arrival in Ireland Cornwallis took to the battlefield once more, and defeated the French invasion force under General Joseph Humbert.

Cornwallis did not enjoy his time in Ireland, and the Irish did not enjoy him. Bishop Percy noted that although Cornwallis was “very civil and pleasant, he will not be a favourite here, for he is very sober himself, and does not push the bottle. They also think him too merciful on the rebels.” [GEC, Complete Peerage, Vol. 1., p456] This last criticism, if such it was, rang true, for the enlightened Cornwallis abhorred the ruling class’s barbarous treatment of Catholics; “murder appears to be their favourite pastime” he wrote [ODNB 2004]. It was Cornwallis’ consistent, yet unfulfilled, pleas to Pitt for Catholic emancipation that led to the Act of Union in 1800.

The final acts of Cornwallis’ long and varied career involved signing the peace of Amiens with Napoleon in 1802, and a final spell as Governor-General in 1805. The directors of the East India Company were reeling from the expense of Marquess Wellesley’s wars of expansion, and Cornwallis’s role was to conclude peace terms, primarily parsimonious, with the various native factions. But he died shortly after his arrival, and is buried on the banks of the Ganges at Ghazipur. His monument survives there to this day.

This portrait is an important addition to the work of the leading Anglo-Indian artist, Robert Home, and represents one of his most accomplished works. Home was one of the most successful English portraitists working in Calcutta at the end of the eighteenth century. His evocative and coolly atmospheric portraits afford us a rare glimpse of daily life for the British in India, at a time when Britain’s position in the subcontinent was undergoing a dramatic change.

Home first studied painting under Angelica Kauffman, R.A., and began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1780. He worked in both Italy and Ireland before sailing to India in 1790, where he accompanied the army of Lord Cornwallis as official artist during the arduous campaign against Tipu Sultan. The likeness for the present portrait must date from this period, though Home’s extensive sitter books do not list all entries before 1795, the time of Cornwallis’ departure from England. It is also possible that this portrait was that commissioned by Mr Horseley in 1807, where Hom’e account book records a payment of 500 rupees for a head of Lord Cornwallis. By June 1795 Home had established a successful studio in Calcutta. In October it was reported that he ‘was much employed, and has handsome prices, I hear’. This is confirmed by his sitters’ book, which is preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His standard charge was 500 sicca rupees (£60) for a head, and 2,000 rupees (£240) for a full-length portrait.

In addition to his commissions from wealthy East India Company civilians, Home painted several portraits of Marquis Wellesley, of Lord Minto (who succeeded him as Governor-General), and of the Marquis’s brother Arthur, later Duke of Wellington; he also portrayed a number of military commanders and high court judges. Among his patrons was the diarist William Hickey, who observed that in 1804 Home was ‘then deemed to be the best artist in Asia’. He was also an able draughtsman: his 'Select Views in Mysore, the Country of Tippoo Sultan' were published in London and Madras in 1794, and in Calcutta he made 215 watercolours of Indian mammals, birds and reptiles, some of which were also worked up as oils.

In 1814 Robert Home (who was now in his sixties) left Calcutta for Lucknow, and became court painter to the Nawab (later King) Ghazi-ud-din Haidar of Oudh. Here he was employed not only in portraiture but in designing furniture, regalia and howdahs. He received an annual salary of £2,000. When the King died in 1827 Home retired with his married daughter to a ‘handsome establishment’ at Cawnpore (Kanpur), where he died at the age of 82, having spent most of his long life in India.



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