Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Sir Robert Wigram, 1st Baronet of Wexford (1743-1830), wearing grey-brown double-breasted jacket with gilt buttons over a white waistcoat and cravat, 1800 

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of Sir Robert Wigram, 1st Baronet of Wexford (1743-1830), wearing grey-brown double-breasted jacket with gilt buttons over a white waistcoat and cravat, 1800, John Smart
Watercolour on ivory
19th Century
Oval, 78mm (3 1/16 in.) high
Sotheby’s, London, 5 July 1976, lot 51 as ‘A fine miniature of Sir Robert Wigram, Bt’; Phillips, London, 6 November 1989, lot 252 as ‘a gentleman’; Karin Henninger-Tavcar, 1993 as ‘unknown gentleman’; Private Collection, Germany.
Gold frame, the reverse glazed to reveal opalescent glass with six locks of hair and a plaited hair surround, fitted leather travelling case.

Sir Robert Wigram was one of Smart’s foremost patrons, commissioning him on a regular basis not only for his own portrait but also to portray his wife and numerous children. This portrait of Wigram would appear to be an early commission, predating his elevation to a baronetcy in 1805, the reverse of the frame containing six locks of hair presumably belonging to his children (he eventually fathered a brood of twenty-three)[1]. The miniature is a pair to the portrait of Wigram’s second wife, Eleanor, also dated 1800.[2]

Born in 1744 in Wexford, Ireland, Wigram was raised by his maternal uncle after his father drowned at sea. In 1762 he arrived in London and by 1764, after a two year apprenticeship, he qualified as a surgeon. Smart and Wigram may have been introduced through their connections with India and the East India Company. Wigram worked for the East India Company as a ship’s surgeon until 1772 and upon returning to London in that year, he married Catherine (d. 1786) daughter of John Broadhurst of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He was married a second time after her death to Eleanor (née Watts), widow of Captain Agnew.

A man of great enterprise and energy, Wigram opened a drug business in 1774 in London, benefiting from his connections with India and China. Having contracted ophthalmia while in China, his eyesight was no longer good enough to continue work as a surgeon. He ploughed his

resulting fortune into buying shares in East India Company ships. He named one of his sons ‘Money’ (1790-1873), perhaps a reference to his greatest pleasure and priority in life (or possibly after his good friend and business colleague William Money 1738-1796?).[3]

His family recorded his memories of this period in 1822:
‘Although my accumulations were but small, I lived genteelly, made good connections and many friends, and gained a perfect knowledge of the trade of India and China, so that in 1772 I had great advantages as a drug merchant, the weakness of my eyes making me unfit for a surgeon. The Dutch and Germans being furnished with most of their wholesale drugs from London, my great knowledge turned my small capital to very great advantage, and ... afterwards I was a general merchant over the whole world, a brewer, shipbuilder, India husband, and a great promoter of Huddart’s patent for cables, etc.’[4]

In 1802, two years after this portrait was painted, Wigram was elected MP for Fowey. He was a great supporter of Pitt (who once asked ‘Who was the little man in shorts?’[5]) and was rewarded for his loyalty with a baronetcy in 1805. Even his new title was bound up with money and business, as he noted in his application the expense he had personally given towards the navy. In 1806, he became MP for his native Wexford.

Wigram’s foray into politics was relatively short lived and he left parliament in 1807 to return to his treasured business, Farington noting:
‘…so much is his mind occupied in schemes for accumulation of property and such the habit of it that in conversation with Wm. Wells he has appeared to consider the latter strangely when he has expressed himself contented with that which he possessed and disinclined to further accumulation. In the night time Sir Robert has a light in his room with pen, ink and paper, and when any thought arises in his mind which he wishes to retain he immediately commits it to paper.’[6]

Wigram’s success with ships soon progressed to the yards in which they were built and launched. In 1805, he bought a share in Blackwall Yard, which had been developed into one of the largest shipyards on the left bank of the Thames. By 1813, Wigram owned and ran the yard with the help of two of his sons, the aforementioned Money, and Loftus. In 1815, he became a director of The East India Dock Company. Joseph Farrington noted his verve and drive, stating he ‘should be miserable if in a morning he should not awake with his head full of ideas of business for the day’.[7]

As well as sharing a common connection with India, the two men may also have been linked in that they were both army volunteers, Smart painting Wigram in uniform in 1805.[8] It would appear that Wigram engaged Smart to paint most members of his family and a collection of twelve drawings were dispersed by a descendant, Rev. Sir Clifford Wigram, in 1959. Wigram died at home in Walthamstow in November 1830, living to see his eldest son, Sir Robert Fitzwygram, 2nd Baronet (1773-1843), become a director of the Bank of England and another son, Joseph Cotton Wigram, Bishop of Rochester (1798-1867).
This unstintingly honest portrait is indication of a close bond between artist and sitter, and has an affinity with Smart’s portraits of his own family. The strong colours are testament to the survival of this miniature in its original leather travelling case, which has afforded considerable protection.

[1] His number of children is listed as twenty-one in his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1830) but as twenty-three in the recent ODNB entry by Anne Pimlott Baker.
[2] Sold Christie’s, London, 18 June 1974, lot 73, from the collection of Rev. Canon Sir C. W. Wigram Bt..
[3] Wigram’s son Money eventually bought Blackwall Yard from his father when he retired in 1819, together with his brother Loftus and George Green, son-in-law of John Perry who had formerly owned the yard. The resulting collaboration became the firm Wigrams and Green. Wigram’s other children also had unusual names, one son, born 1806, was named ‘William Pitt Wigram’ after the Prime Minister who had died that same year (see the drawing by Smart of mother and child, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.4.937).
[4] R. S. Wigram, Wigram Fam. on which this account is based, together with Wigram’s grandson’s memoir of him in H. Green and R. Wigram, Chrons. of Blackwall Yard, Part 1, pp.50-55.
[5] Ibid
[6] The Farington diary, ed. J. Greig, 8 vols. (1922–8), 6th October 1811.
[7] Ibid
[8] This portrait was engraved by J. Heath and published by John Wallis in 1805.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.