Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Churchill Duke of Marlborough (1650 - 1722) 1720c.

Enoch Seeman (1694-1744)

Portrait of John Churchill Duke of Marlborough (1650 - 1722), Enoch Seeman
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
Private Collection, London 1935
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This late portrait of the Duke of Marlborough is a magnificent and moving portrayal of a great commander in retirement. The image resonates with authority, expressed in the military scarlet of the Duke's suit - a bright pigment distinctive of Enoch Seeman's palette - in the general's baton and in the insignia of the Order of the Garter. But the imperious gaze is mitigated by the unusual seated pose, which is surely a reflection of the Duke's infirmity in later years. This mixture of pure power and human frailty should not surprise, nor should it confuse the viewer. On the contrary, it exemplifies the purpose of the Duchess of Marlborough's commissions to Enoch Seeman to paint the Duke and his family, and conveys the greatness of the general with the character and - crucially - the true likeness of the man.

The reputation of John Churchill Duke of Marlborough as one of Britain's, and indeed Europe's, finest generals has withstood the test of the three centuries that have passed since he was accorded that praise by contemporaries. The wordy inscription that covers the plinth of his memorial column at Blenheim Palace, and the great building that stands beyond it are testament to the gratitude of a nation and an alliance for his work in containing and denying the conquering ambition of King Louis XIV.

Churchill's career was shaped early both for military distinction and political intrigue. He was placed by his father Sir Winston Churchill as a page to James Duke of York, and achieved early military glory on the continent in the service of the Duke of Monmouth, the Marshal Turenne and King Louis XIV. He was not hindered in this advance by the fact that his sister Arabella Churchill was a mistress of the Duke of York, nor by the fact that the woman he married, the celebrated beauty Sarah Jennings, was in the household of Mary of Modena, the Duke''s second wife. She waited on the Duchess's step-daughter Princess Anne upon whose favour the Churchills would stand or fall in later years.

This closeness to Princess Anne lead the Churchills to take her - and, therefore, the Prince of Orange's - side in the Revolution of 1688, despite the Duke's service as Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King James II. Rewards for this selective loyalty came swiftly, and already promoted Lord Churchill of Eyemouth (1682) and Lord Churchill of Sandridge (1685) he was created Earl of Marlborough two days before the coronation of William and Mary in April 1689. In the succeeding decade he twice assisted King William in the reduction of Ireland, and was appointed supreme commander of the English forces in the Netherlands, alough in 1690 he was removed from all positions briefly under suspicion of intriguing with the exiled James II. No satisfactory answer has been discovered to the charge, but it remains true that great men of the time were often obliged to maintain discrete relations with both camps, and a correspondence with the exiled court though considered treasonable was not exceptional among his contemporaries of all but the most extreme Whig tendency.

The accession of Queen Anne, whose companion Lady Marlborough assiduously fostered her husband's interests at Court, brought further distinctions for the Churchills. Lady Marlborough was appointed Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole to the Queen and the Duke was immediately nominated a Knight of the Garter and in 1702 appointed Ambassador to The Hague. In the same year war was declared against France and Spain, initiating the nine year campaign whose crowning moments were the taking of Liege - for which Churchill was created Marquess of Blandford and Duke of Marlborough - and the victory at Blenheim, with which his name is forever associated. Further honours were heaped upon him by Emperor Leopold, who created him a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1704. Two years later he accepted from Emperor Joseph the principality of Mindelheim in Swabia which was later exchanged under the Emperor Charles VI for the county of Mellenburg in Upper Austria. Further victories followed, adding the familiar names of Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet to Marlborough''s role of honour.

Fate and envy, however, could permit only so much. In 1711 a combination of the pressure brought by the Duke's Tory enemies at home and the Queen''s increasing exasperation at the Duchess's dominance over her resulted in both Marlboroughs being cast out of their employments.

The present portrait belongs to this period of retirement, a circumstance which makes it a object of considerable interest. It is not known certainly when Enoch Seeman painted this seated portrait of the Duke. Although a lost portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller1 (engraved Faber 1735 for his Kit Cat series) has been suggested as Seeman's source, the resemblances between the two types are only general, and in Seeman's portrait the face suggests considerable presence, and displays an independence of characterisation, suggesting at the very least personal knowledge of the subject. The seated pose of the later portraits of Marlborough is unusual for a portrait of a man of action and it is most likely, as suggested above, that this dates them to post 1716/17 when the Duke is known to have suffered a stroke.

The German-born painter Enoch Seeman is known to have worked for the Duchess of Marlborough over a considerable period. Certainly he was employed as late as the 1730s and presumably - from this portrait - for some years previously. He had come to England with his father Enoch Seeman the elder and his three brothers, Isaac, Noah and Abraham, all of whom were painters, although the last two are now quite forgotten by art history. His was the shining reputation, obtained not least on the strength of his youthful self portraits (example Historical Portraits Ltd), which display a virtuosity ''in the finical manner of Balthasar Denner''2 which quite astounded and delighted English connoisseurs. His best patronage - such as that of the Duchess of Marlborough - occurred early in his career. In 1723 the engraver George Vertue remarks that ''Enoch. for portrait Painting. is in the greatest vogue''3 - and his aristocratic and royal patronage at this date made him a formidable rival to Charles Jervas. In addition to noble and powerful clients such as the Churchills and their extended family he also painted a life portrait of Sir Isaac Newton in his last year of life (Trinity College, Cambridge; Historical Portraits Ltd). The walls of Blenheim Palace display numerous examples of his work, and the letters of the Duchess make specific reference to certain commisisons. A double portrait of the Duke with Colonel Armstrong his chief engineer is praised by her in a letter to her granddaughter the Duchess of Bedford:

I really think that picture of your Grandfather with Mr Armstrong in my bedchamber in London was as like him as I ever saw, and he was so humble as to ask me but seventeen guineas for both figures.4

Seeman also painted a portrait of the Duchess's favourite grandson John Spencer, although this was less to the Duchess''s taste:

And Seeman has spoiled Johnny's picture by putting in an odious periwig full of powder: so that it must be new done, for I hate of all things powder in a picture.''5

In addition, Seeman made copies after Kneller's portraits of the Duchess (example ex-Historical Portraits) and - in an unusual dual borrowing - created a double example ex-Historical Portraits, London portrait from Closterman's portrait of the Duke and Kneller's of the Duchess (collection of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu). The wooden aspect of these productions - the last being especially unconvincing - reveals the present, imposingly characterised portrait in an even more favourable light, and although there is as yet no concrete evidence to support the suggestion, would strongly suggest that it relies on closer and more accurate observation, and more personal knowledge, that the mere repetition of an older type.

1. The lost Kneller portrait and the present Seeman and other seated examples (Helmingham Hall, collection of Lord Tollemache and Clytha Park, Abergavenny) share only the general set of the Duke's head and the fact that the right hand is shown clutching the baton. The grip of the hand upon this is different in the Kit Cat portrait, and there is only a general similarity in the characterisation. The seated Seeman type (employed also in The Duke of Marlborough with Colonel Armstrong (Blenheim Palace) would appear to be a later invention than the Kneller portrait, and would seem, this cataloguer suggests, to be a direct response to the Duke's periodic incapacity after 1716.
2. Horace Walpole Anecdotes of Painting ed. Dallaway 1876 vol II p294
3. Notebooks III p 15 - 16
4. Gladys Scott Thomson Duchess of Marlborough Letters of A Grandmother 1732-1735: to her granddaughter the Duchess of Bedford Jonathan Cape 1946 p.136 This portrait depicts the Duke as though on campaign in cuirass being shown maps of fortifications by Colonel Armstrong. Pace Scott Thomson (loc. cit.) the portrait now at Blenheim is not by Kneller, and there may be no reason to doubt the attribution to Seeman recorded on the frame.
5. ibid. p.146
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