Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Francis Lord Jeffrey (1773-1850) 1820s

Colvin Smith 

Portrait of Francis Lord Jeffrey (1773-1850), Colvin Smith
Oil on canvas
36 x 28 inches 97 x 61 cm
The career of Francis Jeffrey embraced the apparently contradictory worlds of poetry and literary criticism, and law and political power-broking. Although in his youth he stated that he would never be famous save as a poet he became instead known as literary critic and a jurist.

Called to the Bar in Scotland in 1794, he had a poor practice, his Whig convictions being contrary to the ruling political philosophy; four years later he came to London, where he anticipated, though without success, making four times as much through literature as he might through the law. He returned to Edinburgh shortly afterwards, where he diverted himself with scientific experiments.

He also contributed to a number of periodicals, founding one of his own, The Review, in 1802. This enjoyed considerable success, and wide circulation, not least due to the quality of its writing and its strikingly independent viewpoint. Unusual hazards attended publication: in the fifteenth number of The Review Jeffrey wrote slightingly of the latest verses of Dugald Moore (1805-1841). Moore chose to see a personal insult and required that it be settled honourable. Neither paid attention to the minutiae of duelling and when Bow Street Runners arrived at the critical moment to arrest the principals it was discovered that Jeffrey's pistol had not been loaded. Byron was amused by this behaviour of writers whose spirit was less martial than his own, and refers to the incident in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers although he gives the ''leadless pistol'' to Moore.

At the same time Jeffrey's legal career began to take off, and he became a favoured advocate, appearing in a number of significant cases, including appeals before the House of Lords. The success of the Whigs in 1830 finally gave him access to the high office that had long been denied him. He was appointed Lord Advocate, although the onerous duties associated with the role -he was responsible, largely from his own pocket, for the return of several members- took away something of the glamour. Ill-health forced him to retire to London in 1831, and he was relieved in 1834 to be able to accept a seat on the bech of the Court of Session, and to be raised to the peerage as Lord Jeffrey.

Although his judicial duties occupied the greater part of his time, he did not neglect literary criticism, nor the patronage of impoverished writers. His generosity to Carlyle and to Moore saved both men from ruin at critical moments, although Jeffrey''s had an equivocal opinion of their talents. In return Carlyle compared Jeffrey to Voltaire. Jeffrey's error in the eyes of posterity -however ''correct'' it may have been at the moment- was to dismiss utterly the writings of the romantic and mystical poets, and to suggest that the names of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley would be unknown to posterity. He believed that the only poets of his day who would win everlasting fame would be Campbell and Rogers, now relegated to anthologies of the obscure.

The best likeness of him is reckoned to be this portrait by Colvin Smith, of which another version exists in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (PG 569). It was engraved for the frontispiece of Cockburn''s Life. It portrays an alert intelligence, a certain wit and the qualities that made him a scourge to many writers and, as a judge, a particular favourite with colleagues and the Bar.

Smith -who also painted Jeffrey's rival, Sir Walter Scott in a composition known in twenty versions- is one of the more successful of the painter's who followed Raeburn's manner after that master''s death. His artistic education, however, was rooted in the English tradition, and before travelling to Italy in 1826 he studied under Nollekens at the RA Schools. On his return from Italy he established amn extremely successful practice in his native Edinburgh, working in Raeburn''s old studio.
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