Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), 1782 

James Nixon (1741-1812)

Portrait miniature of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), 1782, James Nixon
Oval, 57mm (2 1/4in) high
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This miniature is an important new discovery of a work by James Nixon, and a previously unrecorded likeness of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. The 5th Duke is today best known for being the impenetrably insouciant husband of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, and the apex of an infamous ménage a trois, along with his wife and Lady Elizabeth Foster. Mocked by his family for his attachment to dogs - ‘he really thinks of little else’, wrote his daughter Harriet, while Lady Elizabeth and Georgiana nicknamed him Canis – Devonshire was nevertheless a significant figures in later eighteenth century politics. The Duke, as the head of a powerful and wealthy Whig family, found himself an effective leader of the party, not least because of the immense costs then involved in general elections, which he regularly subsidised. His bankrolling of radical candidates, for example, played a significant role in the ascendancy of Charles James Fox.

However, Devonshire refused Cabinet posts on no less than three occasions, and was content to exercise a supportive role in Whig politics. Some contemporaries put this down to indolence, while others noted that only gambling aroused in him any significant passion. His weakness for cards was shared by Georgiana, and together with excessive spending their gambling debts left the Devonshire estates over half a million pounds in debt at the time of his death in 1811.

This portrait was painted in about 1782. It is inscribed on the reverse ‘Painted by James Nixon/Member of the Royal/Academy 1782(?)’. The last numeral appears to have been cropped, but it almost certainly reads ‘2’, which would accord with the 1782 date of Nixon’s miniature of the Duchess, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. The present miniature was not exhibited, but the two were doubtless conceived as a pair, and were perhaps commissioned by the sitters. Nixon’s miniature of the Duke is a variation of Joshua Reynolds’ c.1775/6 portrait of Devonshire, now at Althorp. Reynolds’ portrait was also copied in miniature format by Richard Cosway and Henry Bone, and appears to have been perceived as an ‘official’ portrait of the Duke. Indeed, aside from the likeness in Copley’s group portrait of the Death of Chatham of 1779/81, the 1775/6 Reynolds was the last major painting for which the Duke sat.

Although the whereabouts of Nixon’s miniature of the Duchess is unknown, a contemporary engraving by I.B. Martin suggests that it too was based on a portrait by Reynolds, in this case the full-length of c.1775-6 now in the Huntington Art Gallery, California. The Devonshires were married in 1774. Like Nixon’s portrait of the Duke after Reynolds, his miniature of the Duchess alters the sitter’s dress. Nixon is known to have much admired Reynolds’ work, and painted a portrait of Reynolds himself, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779.
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