Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of George Anson, 1st Baron Anson (1697-1762) [The ships attributed to RICHARD WRIGHT (1735-1775?) ] c.1754-5

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of George Anson, 1st Baron Anson (1697-1762) [The ships attributed to RICHARD WRIGHT (1735-1775?) ], Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
49 x 39 inches, 124.5 x 99 cm
Sir Charles Saunders (c.1713-1775); By descent to Anne Dundas (née Saunders), Viscountess Melville (d.1841); By descent to Violet, Dowager Viscountess Melville (d.1943); By whom sold Christie’s, London, 23rd June 1916, Lot 84; bt. Freeman for Asher Wertheimer of Bond Street; The National Golf Links of America, Southampton, New York; Christie’s, New York, 6th June 1984, lot 42; Sotheby’s, London, 11th March 1987, lot 44; English Private Collection.
A. Graves & W. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 4 Vols. (London 1899-1901), Vol. I, p.27; D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2 Vols. (New Haven & London 2000) p.63, no.67 (as ‘untraced’).
Naval & Military Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1889, no.49.
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Engraved: James Macardell (Mezzotint), 1755, re-published by Richard Holmes in 1821.

This newly discovered portrait shows George, 1st Lord Anson, one of the most important and effective officers in the history of the Royal Navy. Painted in about 1754, it shows Anson at the height of his career as First Lord of the Admiralty, with widespread public repute, a peerage, and significant riches. He is wearing the uniform of a full admiral. The portrait is recorded in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ledgers as being paid for by Sir Charles Saunders, one of Anson’s most able fellow officers. Research and technical analysis has proved how it also intimately records Anson’s career trajectory over a ten year period.

Anson’s naval career was distinguished almost from the outset. He joined the Navy as a teenager in 1712, was made an officer before he was twenty, and soon saw service both in the North Sea and also in the Americas, where he was stationed for six years in South Carolina. In 1737 he was made captain of the 60 gun, fourth rate HMS Centurion, the ship in which he was to make his name. His most important mission came in 1740 when, as part of Britain’s war effort against Spain (during the War of Austrian Succession), Anson was tasked with attacking Spanish shipping on the Pacific side of the Panama isthmus. He left Britain with 8 ships and more than 1300 crew and marines, but violent storms around Cape Horn meant that only four made it into the Pacific, and, worse, with only 335 remaining fit men, too few even to crew the Centurion. In fact, further bad weather, and the onset of scurvy, meant that only the Centurion could usefully be sailed on.

Despite this major setback, Anson was determined to succeed in at least part of his mission, and brilliantly managed to attack and capture the highly valuable Spanish treasure ship, or ‘galleon’ Nuestra Senora de Covadonga. The silver aboard was worth £500,000 which, having sailed across the Pacific, Anson sold in China, before heading back around the Cape of Good Hope and on to Britain in 1744. Although he returned with just 145 of his original company, Anson’s arrival was greeted with joy and relief amongst the public, who had enjoyed little good news in the war so far. He quickly became a national hero, and, like many successful military figures from the era, by the end of the year found himself a member of parliament, for Hedon in Yorkshire.

Many might have been satisfied with the enormous riches and popularity Anson now enjoyed - as captain of the Centurion he was entitled to three eighths of the Nuestra’s silver. But Anson’s undoubted seafaring and organisational capabilities saw him made not only the admiral in charge of the Navy’s western squadron (that is, the strategically important fleet in the Channel) but also a Lord of the Admiralty. In both roles he introduced sweeping reforms which transformed the Navy and its operations. For example, the various Channel fleets and their confused chains of command were now merged into a single fleet, with new ship designs, and a new method of signalling of Anson’s own creation. His wider changes across the Navy included: radically changing the system of rank, so that officers of merit could be chosen to command ships rather than those of status or length of service; the establishment, in 1755, of a permanent corp of Royal Marines; wholesale changing of the regulations around courts martial, to end political interference in their outcome; and even, from 1748, the introduction of a codified system of naval uniforms. By the end of Anson’s relatively brief tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty (a position he held from 1751 until his death, with the exception of a brief period from 1756-7), the Royal Navy had been radically altered into a far more efficient, modern fighting force; no other First Lord, concludes the Dictionary of National Biography, has ‘ever so successfully combined the roles of political and professional head of the navy, for no politician ever knew so much about the service, and no admiral ever made so outstanding a political career, or turned it so much to the navy's advantage.’

The present portrait’s provenance can be traced back to Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, whose payment of £25.4s is recorded in Reynolds’ ledger as being paid on 26th November 1764. Saunders was one of Anson’s key officers during the circumnavigation, having joined the crew of HMS Centurion in 1739. He was promoted midway through the voyage to commander of HMS Trial, but when that ship was abandoned off the coast of Chile (with only Saunders and four others fit for duty) he re-joined the Centurion. Later, Anson’s patronage allowed Saunders to be elected to the House of Commons in 1754 as MP for Hedon, the seat formerly held and later controlled by Anson, and which Saunders in turn held until 1775. It is probable – despite the long delay in payment until 1764, a wait not uncommon for Reynolds – that the present portrait was commissioned by Saunders as a reflection of Anson’s political support in 1754. Saunders himself sat to Reynolds twice, once in 1760 [National Maritime Museum] and again in 1765 [Private Collection]. The present portrait passed by descent to Violet, Dowager Viscountess Melville, who sold it in the early 20th Century, when paintings by Reynolds were leaving aristocratic collections for enormous sums underpinned by the millionaire American market. Thereafter, the picture was entered a number of collections in the United States, before being listed as ‘untraced’ in David Mannings’ recent catalogue raisonné of Reynolds’ work.

In his catalogue, David Mannings dated the present portrait to c.1754. Although a letter from Reynolds to the sculptor Joseph Wilton, written in 1753, relates that he had ‘drawn a whole lenght [sic] of Ld Anson’, it seems more likely, given the absence of any further record of a whole length by the artist, that the present portrait can be linked to the two appointments made in Reynolds’ pocket book for 1755, on 21st and 23rd February. No pocket book survives for 1754, but there would most likely have been more than two sittings, with others in late 1754. The price paid by Sir Charles Saunders, £25.4s would be appropriate for a half-length by Reynolds at this time. Another version of the portrait is listed as an autograph work in Mannings’ catalogue, that bought by the 2nd Earl of Lichfield in 1871 and now at Shugborough Hall [Mannings, op. cit., p.63 no. 66]. The latter portrait places the sitter’s left hand in a different, more upright position, and would appear, in its general quality, to be the weaker of the two versions and perhaps made with studio assistance.

The present picture’s status and history, and therefore also that of the Shugborough version, has long been confused by its variation in the background with a mezzotint published in 1755 by James Macardell. Unlike the Shugborough version, the mezzotint shows Anson’s hand in the same downward position seen in the present portrait. However, the group of ships seen in present portrait differs from the single ship seen in the mezzotint (probably the Centurion) which is presented in a calm sea and cloudless sky. To add further confusion, two copies by later artists also show different backgrounds; that in the National Portrait Gallery, London follows the ships in the mezzotint, while the other, in the National Maritime Museum, follows those in the present portrait. Consequently, the compilers of both the 1899-1901 and 2000 catalogue raisonnés of Reynolds’ work were uncertain as to whether the mezzotint showed a lost original, and how it related to the present portrait.

However, research and scientific analysis by this gallery has shown that the grouping of ships seen in the present portrait was almost certainly added by a later artist under Reynolds’ supervision, almost certainly Richard Wright, a maritime painter with whom Reynolds is known to have collaborated in the mid-1760s. An X-ray of the ships reveals the different horizon seen in the print, while under magnification the earlier, original background can be seen around the hand and the area to the extreme right hand edge of the canvas. The original sky colour, a deeper blue, can be more clearly seen with the naked eye beneath the rocky outcrop to the right of Anson’s head, as can the outline of the masts from the ship originally painted beneath. Evidently, the National Portrait Gallery’s copy was painted before Wright’s intervention, and the National Maritime Museum’s after.

The reason for such a change in the background reflects the progress of Anson’s career. The grouping of ships in a rough sea is taken from two ships (at the left and centre) of a larger maritime scene by Richard Wright in the Royal Collection, Queen Charlotte’s Passage to England. The Wright shows the squadron sent to bring the future Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, from Germany to England in September 1761. The squadron, which was commanded by Lord Anson, was dramatically blown off course towards the Norwegian coast, and took ten days, far longer than usual, to reach Harwich. The voyage became a celebrated one, and Wright’s picture was exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1762. The same two ships - which are HMS Nottingham to the left and the Royal Charlotte (renamed from the Royal Caroline) to the right – were painted in the background of Reynolds’ Portrait of Mary Manton, Duchess of Ancaster [Houghton Hall], who accompanied the Princess on the voyage. A note by Horace Walpole, made when Reynolds’ portrait of the Duchess’ was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1764, records that these ships were the work of Wright. It therefore seems safe to suggest that Wright added the same scene to the present portrait in the same year, probably to coincide with Sir Charles Saunders’ payment of the portrait in November.

This newly discovered work is a very significant example how and why Reynolds orbited to national fame in the next decade, forging a new vernacular in the portrayal of both individual humanity and concepts of fame and achievement. From the Eighteenth Century it was generally accepted that his portrait of Commodore Keppel (National Maritime Museum) painted two years prior to this in 1752 embodied in its stance, classical fortitude, and compositional drama an unprecedented language in British portraiture. Its compelling power of articulation made him the “greatest painter since Van Dyck” according to his first biographer Malone. Anson and Keppel were of the same breed, presenting to Reynolds similar painterly challenges; indeed Keppel circumnavigated the globe with the former in 1740 . In its highly distinctive facial realism, Italianate lighting and allusion to specific maritime drama Anson joins Keppel in this seminal moment not only in Reynolds’s oeuvre, but the course of British painting in which portraiture and emotion increasingly fuse.
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