Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705 – 1793), c.1770 

David Martin 

Portrait of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705 – 1793), c.1770, David Martin
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm.)
Private Collection, USA
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This portrait of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, was painted by the great Scottish portraitist David Martin and effortlessly captures the status of one of the most influential founders of modern commercial law in Britain.

William Murray was born at his ancestral home Scone Abbey (later Scone Palace) near Perth in 1705. He was the fourth son of fourteen children born to Jacobite supporter David Murray, 5th Viscount Stormont and his wife Marjory. William attended Perth grammar school before travelling to London in 1719 and enrolling at Westminster School, where he befriended Thomas Foley Junior, son of Thomas Foley, 1st Baron Foley, who would later fund his education.

Both Murray and Foley attended Christ Church, Oxford; they matriculated in 1723 and Murray then resided at Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he studied oratory to the point of practising in a mirror whilst being coached by his good friend Alexander Pope, the prominent eighteenth-century poet.

In 1730 Murray was called to the bar and throughout the 1730s and 1740s he worked as a junior council on several Scottish appeals in the House of Lords, and became the main spokesman for the House of Commons, where he was described by Robert Walpole as having ‘great powers of eloquence.’ He was promoted to Attorney General when Sir Dudley Ryder became Lord Chief Justice in 1754 but following Ryder’s sudden death only two years after his appointment, Murray took his place. William Murray was sworn in as Lord Chief Justice and created Lord Mansfield, baron of Mansfield on 8th November 1756.

Lord Mansfield is most famous for his controversial ruling in the Somerset Case of 1772 which significantly contributed to the abolition of slavery in Britain. James Somerset, an enslaved African, brought charges against his master Charles Stewart of unlawful imprisonment. Mansfield identified that English Law does not recognise the state of chattel slavery; it was not established in ‘positive law’ and therefore was not binding. Somerset was freed and Mansfield’s ruling caused great celebration amongst black and white Londoners.

Lord Mansfield married Lady Elizabeth Finch, daughter of Daniel Finch, 7th Earl of Winchilsea and 2nd Earl of Nottingham, in 1738 and although having a happy marriage for forty-six years, they did not have children of their own. Instead they took in Lady Elizabeth Murray, their niece, following her mother’s death in 1766 and Dido Elizabeth Belle. Belle was the natural daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay, Mansfield’s nephew, and was born to an enslaved black African woman in the West Indies. Mansfield’s decision to raise Belle (who was mixed race) as a daughter was highly controversial in a predominantly white eighteenth-century Britain, where slave trading was prominent and black people were considered inferior in society. Belle’s life and relationship with Lord Mansfield was recently revisited in the popular British film ‘Belle’, offering an emotive exploration of race and the position of women in eighteenth-century society.

David Martin, born in Fife in 1737, became one of the most promising students of the leading Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay. After joining Ramsay on his tour of Italy in 1756, Martin studied at St Martin’s Lane, London, and contributed to several coronation portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte in Ramsay’s studio. David Martin is perhaps best known for his humble portrait of Benjamin Franklin which hangs in the White House in Washington. Having trained in Italy for a year, Martin returned to Britain with a distinctly Baroque influence, lacing his compositions with ornate gold thrones and richly coloured fabrics, elements present in both the portrait of Franklin and this portrait of Lord Mansfield. He also painted several key members of the Scottish Enlightenment including David Hume the eighteenth-century philosopher and Joseph Black the chemist who first identified carbon dioxide. Martin went on to successfully exhibit at the Incorporated Society of Arts, the Free Society of Artists and the Royal Academy (1765-1790). He married Ann Hill in 1771 and had three children, all of whom tragically died in infancy. Martin died at his home in Edinburgh on 30th December 1797 which led to a twenty-one day sale of his possessions.

Mansfield was painted by several leading artists of the eighteenth century and a full-length version of this portrait by David Martin hangs at Kenwood House, the former residence of Lord Mansfield. Only two versions of this three-quarter-length portrait-type are recorded, the second is owned by the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh.

This portrait depicts Mansfield as almost regal, clothed in a baron’s coronation robes, with his right hand on an open copy of Cicero, indicating his persona as a Renaissance Man or polymath - he was fluent in Latin and translated Cicero’s works into English whilst at Oxford University. A baron’s coronation robes differ from that of an earl’s, having two rows of sealskin spots on an ermine cape rather than three; the inclusion of two rows indicates that this portrait was painted before Mansfield was made an earl in 1776 by George III.
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