Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Gladstone 

Franz von Lenbach 

Portrait of William Gladstone, Franz von Lenbach
Oil on canvas
19th Century
27 ½ x 20 ¾ inches, 70 x 53 cm
By descent in the Gladstone family; at Harwarden Castle, Flintshire in the possession of C. A Gladstone by 1949; then at Fasque, the Gladstone’s Scottish seat.
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This portrait is one of the most compelling likenesses of William Gladstone, the great Liberal statesmen of the Victorian era and the only man to be Prime Minister on four occasions. Gladstone first sat to Lenbach, the most celebrated German portraitist of his generation, in Munich in September 1874. Gladstone was then traveling on the continent following his defeat at the hands of Disraeli’s Conservatives in the general election of February.

Lenbach’s portraits of Gladstone are well documented. Gladstone at first feigned reluctance to sit for his portrait, but a touching letter survives to his wife, Catherine, in which he describes the excitement of the commission. “I am going to be painted!”, he wrote on 12th September 1874 from Munich; “There is here a very remarkable painter named Lenbach – about 40. He paints (I understand not for money) those to whom he takes a fancy and Mr Morier has made him take a fancy to painting me. He has done a wonderful portrait of Moltke, and an excellent one of Dollinger, with one sitting, and a few photographs first taken. I have been for the photographs to-day and am to sit on Monday and then it is over! I cannot understand this at all – if I could pay I would but as matters stand I hope there is nothing to disburse. Lenbach refused to go to the Crimea to paint the Emperor of Russia – was horribly bored at having to paint the Emperor of Austria – and is going to Bismarck. Here is a tale from fairy land!” [Gladstone to his Wife, ed. A. Tilney Bassett, London 1936]

Gladstone loved posing for his picture, and was the first modern politician to see the value in projecting his image to as many people as possible. He had already spent many hours sitting to artists such as George Frederick Watts, and would later be portrayed by the likes of Millais, and the sculptor Edgar Boehm. In the letter to his wife, however, we see Gladstone’s amazement at Lenbach’s simultaneous use of photography with traditional portrait painting. Gladstone himself knew the potential of photography for creating his own public image. Photographs of the time show him posed as the stern visionary of the age, and even, through his fondness for felling massive trees, as a political strongman, axe in hand.

But Gladstone had never encountered the use of photography in mainstream art. His surprise at Lenbach’s practice is understandable, for even today we consider that a portraitist ought to study his subject over many long sittings, and that the use of a camera is somehow cheating. But Lenbach eagerly embraced the opportunities afforded by photography. For a portraitist used to long sittings with his subjects, who often lapsed into a silent and sullen stare, Lenbach found that cameras allowed him to observe, at length, the vivid expressions usually lost in a moment. He would often photograph his subjects secretly, behind a curtain, in order to see their most relaxed and honest expressions. As a result, Lenbach’s portraits are dramatically lifelike.

Gladstone’s letter also reveals his excitement at the prospect of assuming his place among Lenbach’s venerable canon of Emperors and Princes. Despite his best attempts to appear indifferent to fame, Gladstone’s susceptible ego is evident in the large number of portraits of him that survive. A contrast can be made with Disraeli, who, despite a monumental capacity for egotism, was painted comparatively rarely. In his diary for 1874, Gladstone claimed to be ‘purely passive’ to the prospect of sitting to Lenbach, and notes that the instigation was that of his friend and colleague, Robert Morier. [Gladstone Diaries, 11th September 1874]. News of the portrait sessions seems to have spread far, for even the Crown Princess of Germany noted, in correspondence to her mother Queen Victoria, that Gladstone had sat to Lenbach, and even suggested that Victoria see the finished result. Whether Victoria ever did is not known, but it is likely that she would have shared the somewhat unadventurous opinion of her daughter, who wrote; “Lembach [sic] is much more the fashion and more admired in Germany by all who profess to understand art (not by artists). I think most of the things mere daubs, with a striking little bit now and then, but more tricks than art, and very unsatisfactory.” The Crown Princess, like her mother, preferred the more formulaic portraiture of Heinrich Von Angeli.

Gladstone, however, must have been pleased with the results for he paid further visits to Lenbach’s studio in 1879, and 1886. On the former occasion, when the present portrait is traditionally thought to have been painted (after sittings in September and October), he described Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck as “wonderful, unearthly” [Gladstone Diaries 17th September 1879]. It is quite likely, however, that the present picture was painted during the 1874 sittings, on the basis of comparison with the older-looking Gladstone seen in Lenbach’s larger 1879 portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery [PG 837], and the even more aged Gladstone in Lenbach’s 1886 portraits. The present portrait was at Harwarden Castle, the family seat until the mid twentieth century, and then at some point after 1949 was transferred to Fasque, the Gladstone’s Scottish seat. The picture is on artist’s board, with a rapid sketch on the reverse, and it is tempting to think that it was brought back from Germany by Gladstone himself.

Gladstone’s final sittings to Lenbach took place in Munich in 1886. By then a visibly older man, and once more out of office, Gladstone is seen in these later portraits with all the weariness of a long-serving Prime Minister. The later portraits are arguably more lifelike in their intensity than the earlier portraits. The best known example from these sittings is a double portrait with the Bavarian Catholic controversialist and royal councilor, Ignaz Döllinger [Lenbach Museum, Germany]. Perhaps the finest, however, is a recently rediscovered example, formerly at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, where Gladstone appears aged and almost infirm, but more animated than ever with an intense, piercing gaze reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s description of him as a “half-mad firebrand who would soon ruin everything and be a dictator!”.
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