Historical Portraits Picture Archive

John Gordon-Cuming-Skene (1761-1828), in uniform of commanding officer of The Duke of York’s Royal Regiment of Highland Fencibles, his scarlet coatee with lapels buttoned to reveal Royal blue facings edged with gold lace 

Charles Robertson (1760-1821)

John Gordon-Cuming-Skene (1761-1828), in uniform of commanding officer of The Duke of York’s Royal Regiment of Highland Fencibles, his scarlet coatee with lapels buttoned to reveal Royal blue facings edged with gold lace, Charles Robertson
Watercolour on ivory
Oval, 68mm (2 11/16in) high
Gold frame, the reverse glazed to reveal seed pearl monogram JGC above brown woven hair.

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John Gordon Cuming was born on 9th June 1761, probably at his father’s house on one of the family’s estates in Aberdeenshire; he was his parents’ eldest son. His parents were John Gordon Cuming of Straloch, Birness and Leask (1734-68) and Mary, daughter of John Fullerton of Galary, Forfarshire.

His father died during John’s long minority and the estate of Straloch was sold during that time. In April 1779, just before his eighteenth birthday, John was purchased an ensigncy in the 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment of Foot, then stationed in Ireland. He remained with the 36th until March 1783, being purchased promotion to lieutenant in April 1781. In March 1783, the 36th being ordered to India, John exchanged into the 104th Regiment of Foot and when that regiment was disbanded in April 1783 went briefly onto half-pay while awaiting another commission. In May 1783, he exchanged into the 68th (Durham) Regiment of Foot and, less than a month later, purchased promotion to captain in the 16th (Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot. Less than a fortnight after acquiring his captaincy, the 16th was reduced – at the end of the American War for Independence – and John returned to half-pay.

In 1782, aged 21, John had married Luchan (Lucy), the fifteen-year-old daughter of Sir Hugh Crawford, baronet, of Jordanhill and Pollock. In the decade of peace between the ending of the American War and the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War the couple and their growing family settled on their remaining estates, to which John gave the name of Pitlurg in memory of an Aberdeenshire property once owned by his ancestors. Their eldest son, William, was born in 1784 and was eventually joined by seven surviving siblings, four brothers and four sisters: all the boys became soldiers.

As a half-pay captain and landed gentleman connected to the family of the Duke of Gordon, John was ideally placed to be re-employed when war with France was declared early in 1793. Among the duke’s first acts was to offer to raise a regiment of Fencibles from his vast estates in the north-east of Scotland; this offer was accepted by government on 1st March 1793 and the duke immediately began to select his officers. John was made captain in the 6th, or Northern, Regiment of Fencibles in June 1793 but his commission was antedated to 1st March. Fencibles were regular troops enlisted to serve only within the borders of Great Britain and Ireland, their title being an abbreviation of the term ‘Defensible Men’ – since their role was envisaged as being that of home defence and not overseas service. As a captain, John would have commanded a company in the regiment and immediately began actively to recruit his men. The duke was tireless in raising other regiments, one of which eventually became the 92nd or Gordon Highlanders; when notice of the raising of that regiment was given, in November 1793, John immediately applied for a major’s commission but was to be disappointed in that ambition.

That disappointment, despite his being made second major in the Northern Fencibles in February 1794, may have been among the factors that led him, together with Major John Baillie of Dunean, to leave the regiment in November 1794, when both men were given permission to raise another regiment of Fencibles. The regiment, initially called the Loyal Inverness-shire Fencibles, dated its existence from 21st November 1794, when John was given the brevet, and permanent, rank of lieutenant-colonel. Hitherto, his ranks in the Fencibles had been temporary ones, neither entitling him to any pension, nor having any re-sale value, nor giving him any seniority in the Army. Government had given John Baillie, who was the new regiment’s colonel, the brevet rank to dispose of as he chose and John Gordon Cuming was the fortunate recipient: the implications of that gift will shortly become clear.

Recruiting for the Inverness-shire Fencibles proceeded apace, John being noted as having particularly succeeded in raising men from the city of Aberdeen in March 1795 – despite that city being firmly within the Duke of Gordon’s area of influence. By October 1795, the regiment was fully recruited and established; it had received its uniforms of ‘Highland dress’: kilts and plaids, apparently of the Baillie tartan, worn with scarlet jackets, faced in buff; the officers wore silver lace. At that time, John was given the regimental rank of lieutenant-colonel and upon the death of Colonel John Baillie in January 1797 he was given temporary and regimental rank as the regiment’s colonel.

In 1796, the regiment had been sent to Ireland. Its extensive coastline made Ireland difficult to defend against invasion and its disenfranchised and discontented Roman Catholic majority was regarded by both friend and foe as willing to assist any enemy seeking to invade the British Isles. With the withdrawal of regular forces from Ireland for service overseas, principally in the West Indies, the defence of Ireland was largely entrusted to Fencibles and to locally raised regiments of Protestant Irishmen. The regiment apparently distinguished itself during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and was praised for its effectiveness as a military force; given that many Scottish fencible regiments behaved quite differently at that time, the praise for which the Loyal Inverness-shire Fencibles was singled-out must have reflected the efficient way in which the regiment was commanded.

It is said that, in 1797 or 1798, John Gordon Cuming offered to extend the potential area of service of his regiment outside the borders of Great Britain and that, in 1800, he offered to go with his regiment to serve with the British forces in Egypt then commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby KB. Although these offers were declined by government, they resulted in the King specifically expressing his approval of the regiment’s patriotic expression of loyalty and The Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the Army, giving his name to the regiment, which was created a Royal regiment in consequence. Thus, from being the Loyal Inverness-shire Regiment of Fencibles, the regiment became The Duke of York’s Royal Regiment of Highland Fencibles. Although there appear to be many variations on the latter title, the regiment’s change to Royal status had one important result: one that is manifest in this portrait miniature. Royal regiments traditionally have blue facings and gold lace – to replicate, with their scarlet coats, the British Royal livery colours – and so the regiment’s facings and lace changed from being buff and silver to being blue and gold in about 1799, or possibly a year or so earlier: the exact date is uncertain.

Thus, this portrait miniature can be said to depict John Gordon Cuming as colonel of The Duke of York’s Royal Regiment of Highland Fencibles, c. 1798-1802.

In January 1801, on the grounds of his seniority as a lieutenant-colonel in the regular Army, John was promoted to colonel but, upon the arranging of the truce with France known as the Peace of Amiens in 1802, his regiment was withdrawn from Ireland and disbanded at Stirling in August of that year.

Since John enjoyed the rank of colonel in the regular Army, he did not lose that rank upon the disbandment of his regiment but, instead, awaited employment. In November 1803, he was appointed a brigadier-general and an Inspecting Field Officer of Yeomanry and Volunteers on the staff of Scotland’s Northern District: effectively, this enabled him to work from home, although the area his appointment covered was huge – being most of the north of Scotland. While thus engaged, he took time to write and, in 1805, to publish a ninety-page octavo primer for the guidance of officers and men of the British auxiliary forces: An Address to Volunteer Corps going on Permanent Duty; being a Short and Compendious Direction to the several ranks of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates of Volunteer Corps preparatory to marching and whilst remaining on Permanent Duty, with copies of rosters, guard and parade reports, &c, &c..

In April 1808 John was promoted major general, again on the grounds of his seniority, shortly after which promotion he was presented to the King at a Royal levée. In June 1808, he was appointed to the staff of the British Army in Sicily, where he remained until 1810, after which he joined the staff in Belfast. Following a short time in Belfast, he served as deputy to the commander-in-chief in Jamaica before returning home to command the Severn District in central western England. In June 1813 he was promoted lieutenant-general and appointed to command the south-eastern district of Ireland, from which command he resigned in 1814 on the grounds of ill-health.

In 1815, Lieutenant-General John Gordon Cuming inherited the estates of Skene and Dyce in the outskirts of the city of Aberdeen and joined the surname of Skene to his own, becoming John Gordon-Cuming-Skene. He died in Aberdeen on 6th April 1828 and was succeeded in his estates by his eldest son, William.

Charles Robertson was born in Dublin in 1760 and was the son of an Irish jeweler. His brother, Walter Robertson, also became a miniaturist and although none of his work survives in Britain, there are several works in America by Walter resembling his brother’s style.

Charles Robertson commenced his career by making portrait likenesses out of hair but, hardly surprisingly, demand for these portraits was not high and he subsequently turned his attention to miniature painting. He did however exhibit his ‘Designs in Hair’ from the age of nine at the Society of Artists in William Street, Dublin. He worked in both Dublin and London, moving to London in 1785, exhibiting at the Royal Academy between 1790 and 1810, and returning to his hometown in 1792. He made a second visit to London in 1806.

Robertson joined the Hibernian Society of Artists and later became Vice-president in 1814 and although the exact date is unknown, married Christina Jaffray and had at least four children with her. He died in his house in Holles Street in Dublin in 1821 aged 62.

Robertson’s miniatures are often very distinctive in their light touch and shading in tones of blue; his works are sometimes said to resemble those by Richard Cosway. Robertson was one of the only artists at this time to use gum mixed into his colours, often bright reds or blue.
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