Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of William George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) after Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. (1769-1830), c.1824 

Attributed to William Essex (1784-1869)

Portrait miniature of William George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) after Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. (1769-1830), c.1824, Attributed to William Essex
Enamel on gold
19th Century
Oval, 1 ¼ in. (32 mm.) high
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Original chased ormolu mount with gilt-metal reverse, set into fitted dark red leather case.

This portrait enamel is after Thomas Lawrence’s 1824 likeness, previously part of the Castle Howard Collection. Enamellists, such as Essex, were often employed to paint portable likenesses of commissioned oil portraits. The Royal Collection houses many examples of Essex’s work on this scale, including a similarly-sized portrait of Frederick, Duke of York, after the full scale oil by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845) exhibited in 1823.

Unlike his fellow enamellers, Essex did not always sign his work on the counter-enamel, particularly when painting a variant. Henry Bone (1755-1834), an enameller of the previous generation to Essex, set a trend for enamels to be given as gifts – his portrait of George IV as Prince Regent after Lawrence’s oil of 1814 was reduced to a jewellery size and often presented to his friends. George gave versions of this enamel to his mistress Lady Conyngham and his young niece, Princess Victoria in 1826. It is possible that the present portrait of the ‘Bachelor Duke’ was a gift to a friend or to Eliza Warwick, with whom he had a ten-year affair in the later 1820s.

William George Spencer Cavendish was the only son of William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire and Georgiana Cavendish, celebrated society beauty. Growing up, William George Spencer Cavendish, nicknamed Hart by his family, endured the unusual marital arrangements of his parents and their menage à trois with Lady Elizabeth Foster. He succeeded to his father’s dukedom on 29th July 1811 and inherited eight stately homes and 200,000 acres of land.

Throughout his life, Cavendish was a supporter of the Whig party and became a strong political patron, furthering the career of several Whig politicians. He supported the Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and reduced factory hours. He almost certainly would have participated further in politics if it hadn’t been for his increasing deafness which impaired him from an early age.

Two years after Lawrence’s portrait of Cavendish was produced, he was sent to St Petersburg for the coronation of Nicholas I, at which time he was also decorated with orders of St Andrew and St Alexander by the tsar, in recognition of his liberality. The following year in 1827 he was sworn of the Privy Council and was made Knight of the Garter in 1828, during which time he was also Lord Chamberlain to George IV. At George IV’s coronation, Cavendish carried the orb and when William IV ascended the throne in 1830 he became Lord Chamberlain for the second time until 1834.

Cavendish was known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’ and never married, much to the frustration of ambitious mothers countrywide. In his youth he had intended to marry his cousin Lady Caroline Ponsonby and was deeply hurt when she married William Lamb, later Viscount Melbourne, instead. He also had a ten-year love affair with Eliza Warwick from 1827, which both parties kept secret for the duration.

Cavendish enjoyed spending vast sums of money, leaving his estate in substantial debt at the time of his death. He acquired several important libraries including those belonging to Thomas Dampier (Bishop of Ely), duke of Roxburghe and John Kemble. He was also interested in plants and horticulture and spent a substantial sum of money on the redevelopment of Chatworth. He employed the young architect and gardener Joseph Paxton who built a huge conservatory designed for housing exotic plants including bananas, named by Paxton the Cavendish banana, which have been grown at Chatsworth since 1830. The Great Conservatory was seen by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria when they visited the property in 1843 and inspired the designs for Crystal Palace, the 1851 Great Exhibition, which Paxton was commissioned to design.

Cavendish’s interest in horticulture extended to his election as President of the Horticultural Society of London, a position which he kept for twenty years until his death. He also played a major role in establishing Kew as a national botanical garden.

He died following a paralytic seizure in 1854 at Hardwick Hall and was buried at Edensor in Derbyshire.
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