Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), 1786 

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), 1786, John Smart
Zoom
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 63mm (2 ½ in.) high
 
Provenance:
Private collection, Worcestershire.
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This hitherto unknown and unrecorded portrait miniature of Lord Cornwallis can be regarded as one of John Smart’s most important commissions. There are several recorded miniatures by Smart of Cornwallis although they are all dated between 1791 and 1794 thus making this example, painted the year after Cornwallis arrived in India in 1785, the earliest and probably the first portrait of Cornwallis by Smart.

Charles Cornwallis was one of Britain’s leading military commanders and statesmen in the late eighteenth century. He is best known as the British army’s second-in-command during the American War of Independence and for the subsequent decisive surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

Cornwallis entered the army as a lowly ensign in 1756 and fought as a volunteer in the Prussian army in numerous battles between 1758 and 1761. During the peace that followed, Cornwallis tried his hand at politics and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1762 until the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775. He immediately volunteered to suppress the revolutionaries and sailed in early 1776 from Ireland as Major-General in command of seven regiments. His sharp tactical excellence gained him a prompt victory over George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in August, and thus helped win New York for the British.

However, Cornwallis will always be associated with the catastrophic defeat at Yorktown in October 1781. His initial plan had been to fight an aggressive series of battles in Virginia but he was ordered by Sir Henry Clinton to establish a stronghold at Yorktown and await reinforcements from the Royal Navy. Washington, on hearing of Cornwallis’ position, ordered a decisive attack. The siege was short-lived and the surrender of seven thousand men ended Britain’s last chances of victory in the war.

Cornwallis was not held responsible for Yorktown and his posting to India as Governor-General in 1786 was clearly a promotion. His greatest legacy in India was the initial defeat of Tipu Sultan in the South. He returned to Britain in 1795 to take a seat in Pitt the Younger’s Cabinet as master-general of the ordinance. His career ended with signing the peace of Amiens with Napoleon in 1802 and returning as Governor-General of India in 1805. Cornwallis died shortly after his arrival and is buried on the banks of the Ganges at Ghazipur.

John Smart produced some of his most accomplished work during his ten years in India. His detailed anatomical knowledge combined with the fineness of his brushstrokes, generated a distinctive, almost photographic, end portrait of his sitters. Smart would have painted Cornwallis several times due to his status as a key military figure in his day.
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