Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Augustus Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) 1745c.

Jacob de Wit,attributed to 

Portrait of William Augustus Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765), Jacob de Wit,attributed to
Oil on canvas
18th Century
The name of William Augustus Duke of Cumberland cannot today be separated from his conduct in defeating and suppressing the Jacobite Highlanders who rose in support of the Pretender Charles Stuart, nor from the nickname of ''The Butcher'' which he swiftly acquired through overzealous execution of that enterprise.

This is unfortunate, since without the bloody follow-up to the victory at Culloden he might still be regarded with the affection that the soldiers under his command soldiers viewed him and the respect in which he was still held by his nephew King George III, long after his cause was thoroughly lost through the machinations of his jealous brother, Frederick Prince of Wales and his political enemies. Those virtues in the Duke that inspired loyalty and regard are still discernible two hundred and fifty years after his death, since when it is appropriate to make a more measured judgement of his conduct in the Highlands.

As a younger son William Augustus had been intended from earliest years for a martial career. He was first entered into the Navy in 1740, but was dissatisfied with the unremarkable operations that he witnessed and swiftly chose the army instead. In the same year he was appointed colonel of the Coldstream Guards, and two years later when he came of age was promoted Major General. He served in 1743 and was wounded at the Battle of Dettingen, where his father commanded in person. The Duke''s personal bravery was noted by observers such as Wolfe. During the campaigns in the Low Countries in 1744/5 Cumberland was made captain-general of the British Forces at home and abroad, an office that had not been filled since the Duke of Marlborough. The campaigns of this season were unsuccessful, although there was never any suggestion that the Duke had shown insufficient bravery or competence. Instead the allied army was troubled by the perennial problems of a command and a strategy divided among the various nations.

More immediate dangers recalled the Duke to England when in July 1745 the Young Pretender landed in Scotland. The rout of Prestonpans in September suggested a military emergency, and Cumberland replaced Ligonier, who had falled ill, as commander of the army that marched against the rebels and dogged them as they retreated north from Derby. The events of the Culloden campaign are well-known. Cumberland''s tactics on Culloden Moor provided the English infantry with an effective means, for the first time, of withstanding the fearsome Highland charge, each man attacking not the clansman to his front, who was protected by his shield, but the exposed man to his right, although the sheer exhaustion and depletion of the rebels should be given at least as great a part in their defeat.

Up until this moment all of England and certainly all of the army were united in praise for their young general. In the months following the victory he was recognised as having averted a great misfortune, and scarcely a town was without its ''Duke''s Head'' tavern. He gave orders after the battle, however, that the soldiers searching the vicinity for wounded rebels be reminded that the Jacobite battle orders had suggested no quarter was to be given on the field. This backhanded incitement to murder does Cumberland no credit, and in subsequent years his enemies in Scotland and England were to ensure that the label of ''Butcher'' would stick, but it is important to recognise that Scotland posed an unusual political and personal problem to this man who was both an English military commander and the son of the monarch wished to depose.

Rebellious home provinces, just as Cromwell had realised over Ireland in the previous centuries, could not be treated away or ignored as might a troublesome rival on the continent. Stern measures were needed, he realised, in order to remove once and for all the threat that the Highlands and the Jacobite movement under arms would continue to represent as long as they had resources to do so. As Lord George Murray had declared, resistance might be kept up ''as long as there were cattle in the highlands or meal in the lowlands.'' In this context, the driving off of cattle and the suppression of the clan system seem harsh but understandable responses to a people who were unlikely otherwise to suspend active resistance to a legitimate government. In any case, strictness was not his sole characteristic, and Duncan Forbes, the Lord President, noted that ''His patience, which surprises in such years, is equal to his fire, and in all probability will do very great service to the public.''

In London, however, his jealous brother the Prince of Wales assisted his detractors in promulgating the image of Butcher Cumberland, which was disseminated by pamphlets and caricatures. The possibility of military command overseas must have seemes a convenient escape for the Duke, but his previous good fortune and reputation was not to last. He had never been an adept of generalship, and hamstrung by bickering allies he was defeated in Laeffelt in 1747. In the following decade he was able to salvage his military career –and come sufficiently to terms with his enemy Pitt- to be given command of an expedition against the French in Germany, conducted jointly with Frederick of Prussia. The same difficulties of alies as before, as well as a reluctance on the part of British politicians to invest in the safety of Hanover resulted in failure. The Duke was roundly condemned for his defeat at Ladferde, and the King, who had spent his own savings on the campaign told Cumberland on his return, ''that he had ruined his country and his army, and had spoiled everything, and had hurt, or lost, his own reputation.''

Cumberland resigned his appointments without argument and withdrew into private life. Wolfe''s comment at the time was: ''The duke''s resignation may be reckoned an addition to our misfortunes; he acted a right part, but the country will suffer by it.'' He made no criticism of his father or of the political forces that had campaigned against him, but diverted himself with breeding racehorses, in which he was acknowledged to have one of the finest studs in England. His personal popularity waxed or waned according to the national feeling for Scotland, but a reasoned assessment of his character by Lord Waldegrave written in 1758, when there was no inclination to flatter, held that he had ''strong parts, great military abilities, undoubted courage,'' but that his judgment was ''too much guided by his passions, which are often violent and ungovernable. His notions of honour and generosity are worthy of a prince.''

This oval grisaille of the Duke of Cumberland bears such an affinity to the work of Jacob de Wit that there is good reason to attribute it to that master. De Wit''s portrait work is little studied, but he is known to have executed trompe-l''oeil busts of worthy subjects en grisaille. A good comparison can be made with two versions of a profile in oval of Sir Isaac Newton (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe and Private Collection USA), which may similarly be dated to c.1744-1750. During these years the Duke enjoyed his greatest popularity, and equally had access to painters such as de Wit who worked in the Low Countries. His personal interest in European masters is demonstrated by his patronage of the Swiss David Morier, who executed a large number of portraits of the Duke and his military associates.

A comparable image of Cumberland lies in the wax portrait bust executed by Isaac Gosset in 1752 (Kerslake Early Georgian Portraits Plate 179), which in likeness and classicising costume has affinities with this painting.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.