Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of The Rt. Hon. Charles Townshend MP (1725-1767) 1765c.

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of The Rt. Hon. Charles Townshend MP (1725-1767), Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30x25in 76.2 x 63.5cm
Earl Sydney, thence by descent to Hon. Robert Marsham-Townshend, Frognal, Foots Cray.
A. Graves and W. Cronin Sir Joshua Reynolds 1899 vol. III p.982 and p.984; David Mannings Sir Joshua Reynolds A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings Yale 2000. Text volume p.446 cat. 1760. Plates volume p.627 fig. 1740
Royal Academy, London 1880, no. 136 (lent by Earl Sydney)
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It is usually recognised that significant historical events are the product of a number of discrete causes. If, however, one wanted to find the ''smoking gun'' responsible for the revolt of the American Colonies, one might look no further than the actions, if not the very personality, of the Hon. Charles Townshend. It was his budget of 1767, guided by the need to save £40,000 rather than by any despotic principle of colonial government, that outraged and overtaxed the Americans and led to the celebrated demonstrations in Boston Harbour.

By any of his contemporaries Townshend was acknowledged to be brilliant, although, characteristically of his age and milieu, this brilliance was often expressed in ways bizarre and irrelevant to what is now understood as politically important. As a student in Leyden –where he was a contemporary and associate of Wilkes- he was remembered or his skill in mimicry and for the gift for witty insult that led an enraged Scotsman to challenge him to a duel. Similarly intangible qualities were to the fore in the last years of his life when he gave what has become known –through its effervescent brilliance and perhaps its fuel- as ''the champagne speech.'' No account of this extraordinary performance, still held to be one of the most compelling pieces of speechifying in the history of the House of Commons, contains a single quotation of any length or substance. It is hard even, from the recollections of its spellbound audience, to grasp the matter that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was addressing at such length.

The ''champagne speech'', however, must be our key to the man, rather than a test of his worth. In an age where high-mindedness was not a necessary qualification, or even a required posture, for office, Townshend''s talents were regarded with some caution by contemporaries, but the great political movers of his age, Henry Fox, the Duke of Newcastle and William Pitt all felt him, for the sake of the stability of government, a man better on side than in opposition. When Pitt formed his second ministry in 1766, Townshend was called upon in August to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Pitt may have intended his Chancellor to be fully under his control, but his retirement to the Lords later that year, and his growing ill health soon made that impossible.

Townshend enjoyed to the full the patronage of his new role, not least to his own advantage and secured for himself a large share of the public debt. This piece of corruption had no lasting consequences, compared with the results of his failed budget in 1767. Grenville''s faction contrived to defeat Townshend''s plans to increase taxation, leaving him with the difficulty of making up the deficit and of retaining his job against the convention that a ministry defeated on a money bill should be resigned. The latter proved no obstacle to Townshend''s forceful sense of self: besides, his plan for recouping the money from the American colonies seemed a sure antidote to any embarrassment. He therefore took up again the Stamp Act, which he had in fact previously helped to defeat. In the absence of Pitt no one felt that they had the power to dismiss him, which alone might have prevented the disastrous events that unfolded.

Townshend suspended the legislative functions of the New York Assembly and imposed duty –the infamous ''Townshend Act''on imports to the Colonies of tea, red and white lead, glass, paper and artists'' colours. The fury with which these measures were received gave irresistable impetus to the fouding of loyalist and anti-British associations, and although the taxes were removed in all but one instance, the duty remaining on tea, this was insufficient. Townshend who died of fever in September, did not live to hear about the Boston Tea Party or the Revolutionary War that eventually followed, but he must bear more of the blame for these events than any of his peers, unless we blame them equally for being so entranced by his dynamism that they were unable to remove or contradict him.

This portrait was painted by Reynolds 1765-1767; sittings continued into the period when Townshend had become Chancellor of the Exchequer, and this portrait is related to a full-length showing the sitter in Lord Chancellor''s robes. This particular example, showing Townshend in the sort of fur-trimmed coat so frequently found in Reynolds''s oeuvre at this time, was painted for Lord Sydney, mentioned by Reynolds as the sitter''s brother, but in fact his cousin, the son of his uncle the Hon. Thomas Townshend.
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