Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Earl of Buckinghamshire (1723 - 1793) 1786

Thomas Gainsborough RA (172788)

Portrait of the Earl of Buckinghamshire (1723 - 1793), Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
The sitter; The sitter''s daughter Lady Henrietta Hobart, Marchioness of Lothian; By descent.
On loan to Marble Hill House (English Heritage) Twickenham. May 2003
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We are grateful to Dr John Hayes for confirming the attribution to Thomas Gainsborough

It would have been pleasant for Lord Buckinghamshire to put on his magnificent viceregal robes to sit to Gainsborough for his portrait, as by the date of the painting he had discharged his duty in Ireland, and come home - in his own words - ''a man whose mind has been lacerated with a variety of embarrassments for thirty weary months.'' (G.E. Collins Complete Peerage 1912 vol II p.402 c.)

Lord Buckinghamshire was the son of Sir John Hobart of Blickling Hall, created first Earl in 1746. The first Earl was the brother of Henrietta Howard Countess of Suffolk, the long-lived mistress of George II, and it was said that he owed his elevation to her hard work. Certainly an English earldom was a considerable reward for service that did not properly extend beyond Hobart's home county of Norfolk.

The second Earl was better placed than his father to receive court appointments, and from 1755 to 1756 he was Comptroller of the Household. Then, on succeeding to the title, he served George II and then George III as Lord of the Bedchamber, finally retiring in 1767. In the interim, from 1762 until 1765 - it was said, on account of his appearance - he was appointed Envoy to the court of Catherine the Great at St Petersburg, as it was felt that Britain would best be represented at her court by someone strikingly handsome.

His highest honour was attained in 1776 when he was appointed Viceroy of Ireland. This office, simultaneously aggrandising and burdensome, was seldom exercised impartially or according to the most enlightened practices of government. Buckinghamshire managed more creditably than many, although he was obliged to offer bribes in the form of peerages in fantastic quantities. These were, of course, Irish peerages which, with the exception of the most ancient conferred little actual dignity on the bearer.

Necessarily they conferred no right to sit in the House of Lords at Westminster rather than at Dublin, and so in the absence of this true political power such peerages were in England worth no more than baronetages, and arguably less as the disparity between appearance and fact made them ridiculous. In 1776 eighteen commoners were ennobled on eighteen consecutive days to secure support for the government in Ireland. Horace Walpole (Last Journals cited in Complete Peerage vol. III Appendix H) described it as a ''mob of nobility'' and says that ''the King in private laughed much at the eagerness for such insignificant honours.''

Nevertheless, he exercised his office well enough - in the opinion of the general population- that according to Grattan ''he excited in his favour, among the Irish people, a passion approaching to love.'' Buckinghamshire declined the offer of the Order of the Thistle as a reward for his services, because he felt that accepting a Scottish order might make him appear in the debt of the Prime Minister Lord Bute, a Scotsman who was unpopular for that and other reasons.

Gainsborough's portrait of Buckinghamshire repeats to the knees his full-length of the same sitter painted in the same year. The depiction of Viceregal robes is a rarity in portraiture; the ermine that swathes the sitter is the mantle of his office and not the coronation regalia of an earl. In the full-length portrait the sitter''s coat is elaborately worked with gold embroidery. Whether the absence of that embroidery here is intentional or whether the picture is in that respect unfinished cannot be said. But the plainer coat works better in this smaller portrait, where too much gold might be a distraction form the painter's purpose of representing the man rather than the office. Either way, the plain coat that Buckinghamshire wears here fits his character. A list published in the Morning Herald August 6th 1782 details the ''Amusements that the following Men of Fashion principally delight in,'' Amid pleasures such as flute playing (the Earl of Abingdon), ''popular tumult'' (Charles James Fox) and skating (Lord Hamilton) the Earl of Buckinghamshire is listed for his pleasure in ''an old coat.''

Lord Buckinghamshire died in 1793. Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory on a probably cause: ''An account is come of the sudden death of Lord Buckinghamshire: he had the gout in his foot, dipped it in cold water, and killed himself.''(Complete Peerage Vol II p.402 b.)

The full-length portrait had been intended for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1784, but Gainsborough's long-running dispute with the hanging committee meant that he showed his last pictures in 1783. This exhibition included such works as the Titianesque Boys with dogs fighting as well as the fifteen small royal portraits that were such a bone of contention with the committee. There were to be no more paintings by Gainsborough shown at Somerset House, as he chose to exhibit instead at his own house in Pall Mall, albeit simultaneously with the Royal Academy.
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