Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Lieutenant General Henry Richmond Gale (1760-1814), 1785 

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

Portrait of Lieutenant General Henry Richmond Gale (1760-1814), 1785, Gilbert Stuart
Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 1/5 x 24 1/2 inches, 75cm x 62 cm
By descent from the family of the sitter
Gilbert Stuart maintains a position as one of America’s greatest artists, having painted five presidents, including George Washington (whose portrait by Stuart is still found on the one dollar bill). Born in Rhode Island from Scottish descent, Stuart’s talent for drawing soon caught the attention of visitor Cosmo Alexander, a successful portrait painter from Aberdeen, who began to tutor the young artist from 1770. Stuart’s aptitude for painting at this early point in his career can be seen in his tentative painting; Dr Hunter’s Spaniels [Hunter House Mansion, Newport], which despite being completed at the age of fourteen shows a mature combination of compositional understanding and careful observation.

When tensions in the British ruled colonies rose and revolution seemed imminent, Stuart left for Britain, arriving in Scotland, with Alexander, in 1772. His first years in Britain were a struggle, however, and by 1775, then in London, he was reduced to living on one meal a day. He eventually found help in the form of his fellow American, Benjamin West, who took him on at half a guinea a day as a studio assistant, finishing West’s portraits and painting draperies. Stuart’s exposure to the English style of painting, epitomised by the likes of George Romney and Thomas Gainsborough, did much to improve his personal development, and Stuart was able to exhibit his first portrait at the Royal Academy in 1777.

By 1784 Stuart had moved to his own premises and two years later married Charlotte Coates (1766/7-1845) with whom he had twelve children. In that year, Stuart exhibited at the Royal Academy one of his most celebrated works, a portrait of Walter Grant skating, and it was perhaps as a result of the success of the Grant portrait that Stuart was able to secure commissions such as the present portrait, which is dated 1785.

The sitter in the present portrait is Henry Richmond Gale. The uniform he is wearing shows him at the rank of Major in the 20th Light Dragoons, which position he had attained in April 1783. The portrait is an important example of the technical virtuosity Stuart was successfully flaunting to his audience at this early stage in his career. By the mid-1780’s he had developed a clear preference for painting his sitters on a rectangular canvas but in an oval format, often leaving the corners completely unfinished (most likely covered by a slip or overlay) as seen in his portrait of Thomas Robinson, 2nd Lord Grantham c.1785 [Saltram House, Plymouth]. These works betray an otherwise unnoticed sense of spontaneity as the compositions are opened up, more often than not the sitter’s arms extending beyond the visible sight edge of the canvas. The present work thus takes an important place in the development of artist’s oeuvre as it shows Stuart’s initial experiments with these ideas, finishing the face to high degree whilst quietly fading out the sitter’s arms toward the canvas edge. At some point, probably in the 19th Century, the arms and corners of the picture had been ‘finished’ by a later hand. Recent conservation and cleaning by Philip Mould & Co. has now restored the picture to its original appearance.

Gale was born in 1760, the son of John Gale (1729-1814) of High Head Castle and Sarah Wilson (1728-1774) of Conishead Priory, Cumbria. Gale was one of five children, and second eldest son to Wilson Gale (1756-1818) who inherited Conishhead Priory through his mother and later assumed the name Braddyll. As was common in the eighteenth century, Gale, being the second son, joined the army although saw very little, if any, action.

Gale served in the 7th Light Dragoons as first a coronet and then a lieutenant from 1778 until 1782 when he joined the 20th Light Dragoons and was promoted to Captain. When they were disbanded in 1783 Gale went on half-pay retirement as a Major and remained on half-pay for the rest of his life. Neither the 7th or 20th Light Dragoons served outside of Britain, Gale’s promotion of ranks thereafter simply followed the formalities for retired officers. Gale became lieutenant colonel in 1794 then colonel in 1798, major general in 1805 and finally lieutenant general in 1811.

Although missing out on Conishhead Priory which went to his elder brother, Gale inherited the Italianate Bardsea Hall, which was located three miles south of Ulverston on a site which is recorded as 1085 as being called ‘Barretsiege’. Although the house was destroyed many years ago, the triangular shaped folly within the historic grounds remains, each of the three sides facing the original homes of the family branches; Wilsons of Bardsea Hall, the Braddylls of Conishhead Priory and the Gales of Whitehaven.

It was perhaps a result of his increasingly large family that Stuart never experienced great wealth during this period of work in England, being imprisoned numerous times for debt. In 1793 he decided to return to the United States. On arrival there, he used connections made in London amongst the American elite to aid his career in New York, where he worked until 1795 before moving to Philadelphia. Through these contacts and subsequent introductions, Stuart won what is regarded as his most exclusive commission; a sitting with George Washington (1732-1799), whom he painted twice in the immediate years to follow. Stuart produced over one hundred autograph replicas of Washington’s portrait, using as a model the unfinished Athenaeum Portrait [Boston Museum of Fine Arts] which remained in his possession until his death.
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