Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir John Conroy, Bt (1786-1854) 

Henry William Pickersgill (1782–1875)

Portrait of Sir John  Conroy, Bt (1786-1854), Henry William Pickersgill
Oil on canvas
19th Century
56 x 44 inches, 142.4 x 111.4 cm
Sir John Conroy, 1st Bt; Thence by descent, probably until the later 20th Century; English private collection. Inscribed extensively verso.
Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, London 1973, p.114.
1837 Royal Academy, London, no.72.
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Sir John Conroy played a crucial role in the life of the young Queen Victoria. As the confidante of Victoria’s widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent, he was able to manoeuvre himself into a position of influence over the young Princess, and attempted to control her upbringing via the ‘Kensington System’. However, his plans failed, and Victoria cast him aside as soon as she succeeded to the throne, calling him “that monster and devil incarnate”.

Conroy was born in Wales of Irish parents, his father having come to Britain to practice as a barrister. He was educated first by tutors and then at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich from where he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1803. He wears the uniform of the Royal Artillery in the present portrait. In 1808 Conroy married Elizabeth, daughter of Major General Fisher of the Royal Engineers, and it was through his wife’s connections that he was appointed equerry to the Duke of Kent on the latter’s marriage to Princess Victoire of Leiningen. Conroy maintained, fantastically, that his wife was the Duke’s illegitimate daughter.

Conroy’s organisational skills soon won him the favour of the Kents, and on the Duke’s sudden death in 1820 he became the comptroller of the Duchess’ household. She came to rely on him heavily, and, perhaps inevitably, rumours began to circulate that the two were having an affair.

As it gradually became apparent that the Duchess’ daughter Victoria would become heir to the throne, after the death of George IV’s daughter Charlotte, and the failure of William IV to produce legitimate heirs, Conroy established a system of control over the Princess that was meant to cement his and the Duchess’ grip on the throne whenever Victoria succeeded. The Duchess and Conroy hoped that William IV would die before Victoria became of age, thus requiring a Regency under the Duchess, with Conroy as her private secretary. In preparation for such an eventuality, Conroy created the ‘Kensington System’ to ensure that Victoria was under his and the Duchess’ control at all times. Victoria was never allowed to be alone, had to sleep in her mother’s bedroom, and was restricted to specially selected visitors. Conroy’s power was such that William IV called him ‘King John’.

However, William IV was determined to thwart the Duchess’s plans, even going so far as to say, to her face, that he was determined to live beyond Victoria’s eighteenth birthday simply to spite the Regency scheme. He succeeded, and died a few months after Victoria reached her majority. One of Victoria’s first acts as Queen was to distance herself from her mother, and to banish Conroy from the household. Later, in 1839, the Duke of Wellington persuaded him to go abroad, where he amassed a number of foreign honours, including a Guelphic Knighthood, all of which are listed on the reverse of the present picture. He had been created a baronet in 1837, but Sir Robert Peel refused him the Irish peerage, which had apparently been promised by Melbourne. He died at his home, Arborfield Hall in Berkshire, in 1854 leaving substantial debts. The present portrait is the prime example of three versions. The versions are listed on the reverse of the picture, which states that this example was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837.
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