Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 25in (76.2 x 63.5cm)
Sotheby's, London, 23 May, 1962, lot 167 (purchased by H. Buckley); With Knoedler & Co., London, 1966; With Old Hall Gallery Ltd., Iden -Rye, Sussex, England; Christie's, London, 23 November, 1973, lot 38; Bt. by Oscar and Peter Johnson, Ltd., London, after the sale).
E. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, p. 77, no. 428 To be included in the forthcoming Gainsborough Catalogue Raisonne (Yale) by Hugh Belsey
Although in office for a short period of time, William Petty’s contribution to the history of British politics is significant, and is perhaps best remembered for his part in negotiating peace during the American War of Independence.

Petty (formally Fitzmaurice) was born into a prosperous family from County Kerry, Ireland, his father John Fitzmaurice (1706-1761) inheriting large estates formally belonging to his grandfather Sir William Petty (1623-1687), upon which he changed his name to Petty. In 1753 Petty’s father was created 1st Earl of Shelburne and Petty was styled Viscount Fitzmaurice in the Irish peerage.

Petty matriculated at Christ’s Church, Oxford in 1755 and after leaving university joined the army, serving in the 20th Foot regiment taking part in the attack on Rochefort in 1757 during the Seven Years War. After distinguishing himself in Germany in early 1760 he was raised to the rank of Colonel and following the accession of George III, was appointed aide-de-camp to the new king. When Petty’s father was awarded an English barony in 1760 Petty succeeded to his father’s parliamentary seat at Wycombe (influenced by his father’s estate) and after the general election in 1761 was representing both Wycombe in the Commons and County Kerry in the Irish parliament. The death of Petty’s father in 1761 propelled his political career further and he immediately entered the House of Lords at Westminster as Baron Wycombe and in Dublin as 2nd Earl of Shelburne.

Despite his rapid rise to prominence it appears that Shelburne was not one to pander to his seniors, instead demonstrating his opinions and morals aloud which, especially in his earlier political career, annoyed his peers and even the king, who in 1762 described Shelburne as a man who ‘once dissatisfied will go any lengths.’

In 1763 when George Grenville became Prime Minister Shelburne joined his cabinet and was appointed First Lord of Trade, although he resigned soon after on Grenville’s refusal to appoint William Pitt the elder to the cabinet.

When Pitt was eventually made Prime Minister in 1766, Shelburne was appointed Southern Secretary, although he was dismissed two years later following his passive attitude to dealing with the increasingly angry American colonies, who then had French support. When Lord North became Prime Minister in 1770 Shelburne joined forces with Lord Rockingham as the Opposition, keeping a hard line on the escalating crisis in America. The sudden death of Rockingham in 1782 after only fourteen weeks as Prime Minister thrust Shelburne into centre stage and the king immediately offered him the position, with William Pitt the younger as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Shelburne pressed on for peace with America, finally agreeing on the borders which now define the United States and remain his greatest legacy. When a coalition formed between Charles James Fox and Lord North in April 1783, Shelburne’s resignation soon followed and in December 1783 Shelburne was created 1st Marquess of Lansdowne.

Lansdowne was well acquainted with Gainsborough and had met him a decade before when the artist made an impromptu visit to his house, as recorded in a letter to a Mr. William Jackson of Exeter. There are two known versions of the present work, and although the other portrait has only been seen from a black and white image, the freedom and spontaneity of the present work suggests it to be the primary version. Landsdowne sat to the artist in April 1787 and the resulting portrait was (according to William Whitley who published a reputable biography on Gainsborough in 1915) intended as a present for the King of France - no doubt a gesture of friendship following the end of the American War of Independence. A portrait by Gainsborough sold through Christie’s in 1897 titled ‘Benjamin Franklin – Replica of Bowood’ is perhaps further evidence of this political exchange of portraiture.

Whether any portrait of Lansdowne ever left for France is not known, however one of Gainsborough’s portraits of Lansdowne was exhibited along with a portrait of Lord Wycombe, Lansdowne’s son, at Gainsborough’s gallery the following month after the sitting. Sir Henry Bate Dudley, a founder of The Morning Post supposedly wrote of the portrait:

“The art cannot bo beyond this effort. There is magic in the picture and it appears to breathe. The portrait is destined for France and we may ass that the honour of England in the Fine Arts will be extended wherever it goes.”

Letters from George III to Lord Bute, 1756–1766, ed. R. Sedgwick (1939), no.163.
W. T. Whitley Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1915. p.384.
A. Graves, Art Sales, 2nd ed. Bath, 1973, p.340 – Bowood was Lansdowne’s estate.
W. T. Whitley Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1915. p.272
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.