Historical Portraits Picture Archive

John Fitzgibbon Earl of Clare (1749-1802) 1787c.

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

John Fitzgibbon Earl of Clare (1749-1802), Gilbert Stuart
Oil on canvas
18th Century
42 x 26 inches 108.6 x 67.3 cm
Probably the sitter's sister, Elizabeth, who married William Beresford, 1st Baron Decies (1743-1819); Then by descent in the Decies family until 1960. Private collection, U.S.A. until 1997
Engraved: In mezzotint by Charles Hodges (?1764-1837) and published: G.Cowen, Dublin & at T.Macklin''s, London, 20 September 1790.
Ulster Museum, The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland - A Bicentenary Exhibition -
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Until the re-emergence of this painting by Stuart of his famous subject, Lord John Fitzgibbon, it was widely assumed that the large scale portrait in Kansas was the one engraved in mezzotint by Charles Hodges in 1790.

However, there are a number of small but significant compositional differences between the two. In this version there is less gold braiding on the robe, there are ropes on the Chancellor's purse and the stormy clouds of the background are more pronounced. Since all of these elements are also found in the mezzotint there can be little doubt that it was this image that was engraved.

Stuart was actually invited to Dublin Charles Hodges, the leading English mezzotint engraver, for the purpose of engraving Fitzgibbon's portrait - a collaboration which, if successful, would have been extremely lucrative for both parties. The plate that Hodges then produced was among his finest, and is known to have sold well in both London and Dublin. Once it had been engraved the portrait appears to have been acquired by the sitter's family and almost certainly belonged to Fitzgibbon's sister, Elizabeth, who married William Beresford, 1st Viscount Decies. It remained with his descendants until 1960.

Stuart arrived in Dublin in October 1787, apparently at the invitation of the 4th Duke of Rutland who had been a patron of Stuart in London. Rutland, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, died suddenly on 24 October of the same year. However, two of his main patrons from London, the Duke of the Northumberland and the Earl of Shelburne had extensive estates and influence in Ireland. Furthermore, the city was undergoing a great period of artistic and architectural development and this further ensured an advantageous climate of portrait patronage.

The first major commission that Stuart received was for a full-length portrait of Fitzgibbon in his robes of office as Lord Chancellor. The most powerful individual in Ireland, who as Lord Chancellor was a virtual dictator, Fitzgibbon was already becoming renowned for his political acumen. Stuart responded by creating a Grand Manner setting for Fitzgibbon's portrait that consciously emulates the old masters. Using a pose that unashamedly derives from Van Dyck's double portrait of George, Lord Digby and William, Lord Russell at Althorp, he effectively conveys the confidence and intransigence of the sitter''s authority via association with these earlier images of aristocratic power and supremacy. 4 Although such devices as the billowing scarlet curtain that contrasts with the strong vertical of the column are also borrowed from Van Dyck''s repertoire, they are complemented by the contemporary and weighty physical symbols of Fitzgibbon's office - the gold mace, topped with the crown, orb and cross and the richly embroidered chancellor''s purse with the royal arms of the Kingdom of Ireland. All of this is communicated via a fluent handling of paint and a bravura of brushwork which helps make it one of the great images of the modern Protestant Ascendancy.

The great success of this portrait of Fitzgibbon resulted in commissions from many of the most important and influential figures in Ireland at the this period. These include John Forster (1740-1828), the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons; the statesman Henry Grattan (1746-1828); John Beresford (1738-1805), first Commissioner of the Revenue in Ireland and George Hamilton (1733-93), Baron of the Exchequer.

The sitter was the second son of John Fitzgibbon of Mount Shannon, near Donnybrook, Ireland, where he was born. He distinguished himself at Trinity College, Dublin and Christ Church, Oxford and was called to the Irish bar in 1772 before being appointed Attorney-General of Ireland in 1783. He married Anne (d.1844), eldest daughter of Richard Chapel Whaley of Whaley Abbey on 1 July 1786. He was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1789, the same year that he was created Baron Fitzgibbon and subsequently Viscount Fitzgibbon in 1793 and Earl of Clare in 1795. Fitzgibbon became Chancellor at a politically difficult time and his strong measures, including his opposition to Catholic emancipation made him generally unpopular. However, he was a man of great energy and determination, noted in the courts for his rapid decisions and he is credited with having done more than any other man to bring about the Union.
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