Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811) 

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland RA MP, 1st Bart (1735-1811)

Portrait of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811), Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland RA MP, 1st Bart
Oil and Canvas
36 x 28 inches, 91 x 71 cm
European Private Collection.
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This engaging portrait shows the 3rd Duke of Grafton, who served as Prime Minister from 1768-70. It was probably painted shortly before George III asked him to form his administration. Unusually, the picture is signed (‘ND’, lower right) in the form of a letter to the sitter from the artist, and the connection between Dance and the Duke is doubtless evidence of the painter’s interest in politics even at this stage in his career – Dance would eventually become an MP, in 1790, having retired from painting. Like most works by Dance, the picture is in excellent condition, for his technique involved using thickly applied and boldly coloured paint. Another version of the portrait remains in the possession of Grafton’s descendants at Euston Hall.

Grafton first entered politics in 1756 as an MP, at the age of just 21. The death of his grandfather months later, however, saw him promptly elevated to the House of Lords, and it was as one the Lords’ younger and more energetic members that Grafton first made his mark. There, he cemented a family connection with the then Prime Minister, Thomas, 1st Duke of Newcastle, and through him became an adherent of William Pitt the Elder, the all-powerful figure who, despite officially being Prime Minister for only 2 years, effectively governed Britain for much of the period through his powerful position in the House of Commons. By 1765 Grafton was of significant stature to be appointed Secretary of State for the northern department. However, he did not hold the office long, for in 1766 he was persuaded by Pitt to accept the post of First Lord of Treasury - in other words, the office (nominally at least) of Prime Minister – while Pitt wielded power in reality. In all matters of government, Grafton deferred to Pitt.

But Pitt was by then not a well man, and despite seeking respite in the Lords by becoming the Earl of Chatham, he became seriously ill in mid-1767. Gradually, therefore, Grafton began to act with the full authority of Prime Minister. He was just 33. But despite key appointments such as Lord North as Chancellor of the Exchequer (who would also be painted by Dance; NPG London), Grafton’s government was not a strong one, mainly due to the tensions caused by those adherents of Pitt who had remained in the Cabinet such as Lord Camden, but also due to Grafton’s occasional lack of energy and leadership. He was tested by events such as the election of John Wilkes to the House of Commons and the ensuing riots in Middlesex which resulted in the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, where troops killed seven rioters. In terms of foreign policy Grafton’s administration was dominated by relations with America – for example, in 1769 the Cabinet voted to maintain the famous tea duty in the American colonies. Pitt’s recovery in late 1769 ensured that soon Grafton would be superseded by his former mentor’s energy and determination to hold power, and in January 1770 the Duke resigned. He continued to hold office thereafter, but only in relatively minor posts such as Lord Privy Seal under the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.

Grafton’s political career was often in danger of being over-shadowed by his private life, and he was sometimes criticised for his idleness and pursuit of pleasure. His first marriage, in 1756, to Anne Liddell was not a success, and by the end of the 1760s the Duchess had begun an affair with John, 2nd Earl of Upper Ossory, whose illegitimate child she bore in 1768. By the time Grafton was Prime Minister, he lived so openly with his mistress, Nancy Parsons that he scandalised even mid-Georgian London society. But midway through his time in office, in 1769, he married his second wife, Elizabeth Wrottesley, with whom he had 12 children.

It was probably while Grafton was on a Grand Tour of Italy in the early 1760s (designed, unsuccessfully to re-build relations with his first wife) that Grafton first met Nathaniel Dance. The artist was then, like many of his English contemporaries, studying in Pompeo Batoni’s studio in Rome. Grafton was painted by Batoni in two slightly varying portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London, and Euston Hall). It was probably while under Batoni’s influence that Dance developed the use of the highly pitched colours that became his trademark, and which help convey this unusually direct image of a Duke at work. The evident familiarity between sitter and artist may also be due to the fact that Dance and Grafton were exact contemporaries.

Dance initially worked in Italy as a history painter, but soon became known, as Walpole noted, as ‘the celebrated English painter at Rome’. His best portraits were of Grand Tourers such as Augustus, Duke of York (1764, Royal Collection). While the portrait of Grafton here was painted shortly after Dance’s return to London, it retains in its overall colouring and lighting a feeling of the neo-classical approach to portraiture then dominant in Rome. It was also in Rome that Dance began his passion for the painter Angelica Kauffman, and where the two apparently determined to marry on their return to London in the 1760s – though sadly the union never occurred, much to Dance’s chagrin.

By the mid-1770s Dance had become financially independent thanks to his marriage to a wealthy widow, Mrs Dummer, who brought to the union an income of £18,000 a year, but took a dim view of his artistic career. He finally ceased painting professionally on his election to Parliament in 1790. In the same year he resigned his membership of the Royal Academy, of which he had been a founder member. In a curious reflection of the relatively low social status of artists in the late eighteenth century, Dance took care to disassociate himself with his artistic past, destroying many of his works, and exhibiting only the occasional landscape at the Royal Academy (in the catalogues of which he was listed in all cases, as ‘a gentleman’). It is possible that Dance saw his great talent as a mere trade, and thus the work of Britain’s first neo-classical artist has become less well known that it otherwise should be. He became a Baronet in 1800.
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