Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Esme Stuart Duke of Richmond (1649-1660) c.1653 1653c.

John Weesop 

Portrait of Esme Stuart Duke of Richmond (1649-1660) c.1653, John Weesop
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
presumably commissioned by the sitter's mother Lady Mary Villiers Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (1622-1685); her cousin George Legge Lord Dartmouth; by descent to William Legge 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, Sandwell Hall, Staffordshire; by descent to William Legge 7th Earl of Dartmouth, Patshull Park, Staffordshire; by descent to Lady Elizabeth Basset
Stebbing Shaw The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire London 1801 Vol.IIi pp.128-132 Sir Oliver Millar KCVO Weesop: flesh on a skeleton The Burlington Magazine CXLII 2001 pp.1183-1191
This portrait is an appropriately princely image of the heir to the Duke of Richmond, cousin and closest friend of the lately-executed King Charles I, who through his mother Lady Mary Villiers was the grandson of the great Duke of Buckingham. The promise of this portrait, however, was not to be fulfilled, and it acquires instead a considerable poignancy. Esmé Stuart''s father, James Duke of Richmond, died in 1655 leaving his son to succeed to the title at the age of six. The Duke had been one of the most loyal supporters of the Crown during the Civil War -in which his three brothers, George, John and Bernard had all been killed fighting for the Royalist cause- and both the hostility of victorious party and financial hardship -in addition to the forfeiture of his estates by Parliament he had given the King some £96,000- made it necessary for him and his family to spend periods of time in exile on the Continent.

Consequently the young Duke was removed from England to Paris by his mother, where he later contracted smallpox and died August 10th 1660, three months after the Restoration that would have made possible the recovery of his father's estates. The personal and dynastic tragedy was keenly felt. The Venetian resident records that the Duke was ''…of great promise, and the king and Court are much grieved.'' The Duke was buried in Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey near his father, and, reputedly, his heart was set in a pyramid above the latter's tomb. He was succeeded by his cousin Charles Stuart, whose father Lord George Stuart Seigneur d''Aubigny had been killed at Edgehill in 1642. Charles Stuart died in Denmark in 1672 when the male line of the Stuart dukes became extinct.

Weesop is a painter whose career and oeuvre have only recently received the attention that they deserve. For too long posterity has relied solely on the remarks of William Sykes, recorded by Vertue, that ''Weesep. painter. came here in the in the time of Vandyke 1641. liv'd here till 1649, then went away, but said he would never stay in a country, where they cut of their kings head in the face of all the world & was not asham''d of the action.''

Documentary evidence assembled by Sir Oliver Millar has shown that a John Weesop was still living, and presumably working, in London in 1653, whilst a reference to a Mrs Weesop only later in that year may suggest that the painter died in that year.

Weesop's royalist sympathies may not have been exaggerated, however. The small body of work attributable to Weesop is associated exclusively with staunchly royalist patrons. These include figures such as Elizabeth Murray Countess of Dysart and later Duchess of Lauderdale, but the most prolific patrons are members or allies of the Villiers family. A painting now on loan to the Duke of Buccleuch from the Government Art Collection and inherited from the Earls of Cardigan, depicts Lord Grandison and Mr Villiers by Weesopp, according to a list of 1730. These brothers were the sons of Sir Edward Villiers, the half-brother of the Duke of Buckingham. A further painting, noted in 1730 as Lady Sussex and three children by Weessop is of Anne Villiers, Countess of Sussex, daughter of Buckingham's younger brother, the Earl of Anglesey. Plainly the widely-spread Villiers cousinage were close enough in their tastes and in their communication to sponsor Weesop.

Esme Stuart Duke of Richmond conforms perfectly to this pattern of patronage. His mother, Lady Mary Villiers, was the daughter of the 1st Duke of Buckingham, and with her siblings was raised almost as one of the king's own children after the murder of her father in 1628. Her first marriage in 1635 was to Lord Herbert of Shurland, the heir to the Earl of Pembroke. This was ended in less than a year by Lord Herbert''s premature death, and two years later she achieved an even more splendid match in marrying the Duke of Richmond. The young Duke, therefore, unites two of the most sonorous names of Caroline England, hollow as these may have seemed in the early 1650s. The painting would appear always to have been a personal possession of the sitter's mother, who outlived her son and -having married again to the Hon Thomas Howard, brother of the Earl of Carlisle- died in 1685. This painting then passed into the possession of George Legge 1st Lord Dartmouth, whose great-grandfather Sir George Villiers was grandfather to the Duchess. From then until recently it was in the uninterrupted possession of the Legge family, and is recorded at their seat Sandwell in Staffordshire in Stebbing Shaw's 1801 survey along with other paintings that must have belonged to Lady Mary Villiers, since they comprise two portraits of her -one with her children- and a full-length portrait of her father the Duke of Buckingham.

The dating of this portrait depends on interpretations of the sitter''s age. He is shown ''in coats'' rather than the more adult dress of older children and is, therefore, younger than seven. He exhibits, however, a greater maturity than one would expect of his age, and it may be that the artist, mindful of the dynastic aspect of the portrait, has granted a three-year-old boy a more vigorous and robust aspect than he may have displayed in life. In composition the painting repeats the pose of the left hand figure in Two children and a dog (Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, Boughton House), and both portraits reveal an awareness of Van Dyck''s groups of the children of King Charles I. The two spaniels, large and small, are a similar recollection of Van Dyck; the large dog suggests the mastiffs on which the infant Prince of Wales rests his hand, although Weesop imports a curiously supra-canine character.

Although one cannot agree any more with Vertue that ''many pictures painted by [Weesop] pass for Vandyke'' the present picture was just so catalogued in the eighteenth century and appears in Shaw's description as a whole length of Esmé Stuart, duke of Richmond, when a child by Vandyke. In many ways, although the prime influence must be Van Dyck, Weesop emerges as a master of considerable independence. He is a supreme colourist, which is evident not only in the magnificent golden amber of the sitter''s coat, but in the red evening light which suffuses the picture and is picked out in the striking crimsons and russets that touch the background and foliage. The landscape is particularly accomplished. The distant river and cataract recall contemporary works of Lely, but the interest in foliage and vegetation emerges as an individual trait. The large leaves in the foreground, depicted with remarkable care, place Weesop as much in the contemporary Dutch landscape tradition as that of Van Dyckian portraiture, and it is interesting to speculate whether, as his oeuvre is more fully understood, he may also emerge as a painter of landscapes.
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