Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Josiah Child MP (1630-1699) 1690c.

John Riley (1646-91)

Portrait of Sir Josiah Child MP (1630-1699), John Riley
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
probably Oxenhams Auctioneers, London 1st June 1832 lot 213. The collection of Sir Basil Goulding Bt., Ballyrusheen co. Cork.
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The fame and reputation of Sir Josiah Child rests not only on his Croesan wealth, which excited the comment of contemporaries such as John Evelyn,1 but on his sound understanding of the economics and politics of commerce, which he expressed in works such as A New Discourse of Trade (1665) and A Discourse Concerning the East India Trade.

He was born in London, but by 1655, at the age of twenty-five, he was in Portsmouth, where he was employed in securing provisions for the Navy. His office is described variously in contemporary documents as ''victualler'', ''deputy treasurer of the Fleet'' and ''agent to the Navy Treasurer.''

Child remained in Portsmouth for almost thirty years. This period represents his apprenticeship in marine commerce, just as his duties in the town were a schooling in political administration. Certainly he involved himself in the affairs of Portsmouth to the degree of becoming mayor from 1658 to 1659. As was the practice among ambitious men of his time, he combined this interest with representing a more distant -and, perhaps, unvisited- constituency in Parliament, the borough of Ludlow. Before he returned to London in the 1680s (whence he was MP for Ludlow 1685-87) he stood as Member of Parliament for Dartmouth from 1673-1678.

In this latter year he received a baronetcy, a suitable reward for his industry, and at the same time a compensation for the baronetcy that his father had been given by Charles I in 1642, but which title he had been unable ever to assume, as the patent was never completed.

By 1677, Child had been appointed a director of the East India Company. Between 1681-1683 and 1686-1688 he held the office of Governor, and for periods of time had absolute control over the company and its affairs. The rest of his trading and writing career was devoted to the service of this company, and to a satisfactory resolution of the Company's perennial competition with the Dutch East India Company. It is no exaggeration to say that the supremacy which the East India Company achieved by the beginning of the eighteenth century, which enabled Britain then to control affairs in the subcontinent for the next two hundred years, was in good part the result of his own theories and exertions.

His brother, Sir John Child, was at this time military governor of the British Indian settlements, and guided by Sir Josiah's precepts he set about tightening British control. It was held at home that his methods were not always scrupulous, and he himself sometimes regarded due process an impediment to the administration of a trading colony. The laws of England, he once declared were: ''a heap of nonsense, compiled by a few ignorant country gentlemen, who hardly knew how to make laws for the good government of their own families, much less for the regulating of companies and foreign commerce.'' He guarded against excessive interference from these ''country gentlemen'' -his Parliamentary colleagues- by ''great annual presents'' to buy their co-operation. This should be regarded less in the light of modern than contemporary practice, the cause of his colleagues grievances being not that Child made bribes but that he was able to do so more munificently and thus more successfully than they.

In 1673 Child bought Wanstead Abbey and expended a ''prodigious cost in planting walnut trees about his seate and making fish-ponds many miles in circuit.''2 This house did not survive beyond the middle of the next century, when the last of Sir Josiah''s line, his grandson, Lord Tylney demolished it and replaced it with the magnificent Palladian house whose destruction in the 1850s is one of the great tragedies of British architectural history.

Instead, Sir Josiah Child's enduring legacy must be his contribution to the British purpose in India -which he continued to espouse with a great volume of pamphlets right up until his death in 1690- and the thoughts on trade and labour preserved in his writings. In addition to economic tactics intended to defeat the Dutch -he believed, for example, in lowering interest rates, as the Dutch with their lower interest were outstripping a Britain suffering from inflation- the wrote thoughtfully on Free Trade and on the relief and employment of the poor. In these last areas he displayed a position far more in keeping with modern sensibility than that of the mass of his contemporaries3.

This portrait by John Riley (versions NPG 5932 reduced to oval; Bedford Collection, Woburn Abbey) is of a type characteristic in the artist's oeuvre. It is datable to the 1680s, when Sir Josiah's influence was at its height, and demonstrates the shrewd characterisation and attention to detail that are distinctive in the work of this painter. Eschewing the more languid or theatrical approach of the followers of Lely, John Riley espouses a sober style, that in part must explain why he was so popular with the more pragmatic and hardheaded sitters, and at the same time why his images of them remain so memorable. The formula employed in this portrait appears not infrequently in his work -brown/orange robes, a curtain, a column, an acanthus capital or balustrade- but the whole remains untainted by any sense of repetition and in powerfully imbued with the sitter's strong character and a powerful sense of presence.

1. Evelyn estimates Child's fortune at around 200,000l in 1683. Diaries 16th March 1683.
2. Ibid.
3. A New Discourse of Trade (1665; editions 1668, 1670, 1690, 1693) Chapter ii.
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