Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Young Boy, ? Member of the Somerset family 1770s

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland RA MP, 1st Bart (1735-1811)

Young Boy, ? Member of the Somerset family, Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland RA MP, 1st Bart
Oil on canvas
18th Century
23 x 19 inches, 48x58.5 cm
Henry Vere Fitzroy Somerset 1898-1960
Nathaniel Dance trained, like so many of his contemporaries, in Rome, where he studied with Pompeo Batoni. It was probably while under Batoni’s influence that Dance developed the use of the highly pitched colours that became his trademark, and which help convey this affectingly direct image of childhood – in contrast to the more subdued work of his contemporaries in London. Dance initially worked in Rome as a history painter, but soon became known, as Walpole noted, as “the celebrated English painter at Rome” . His best portraits were of ‘Grand-Tourers’ such as Augustus, Duke of York (1764, Royal Collection) and David Garrick. It was in Rome too that Dance began his passion for the painter Angelica Kaufman, and where the two apparently determined to marry on their return to London in the 1760s – though sadly the union never occurred, much to Dance’s chagrin.

Once back in London Dance established a successful portrait practice, where he continued to paint the colourful and expressive portraits for which he had become famous. At some point in the 1770s he became financially independent, and finally ceased painting professionally on his election to Parliament in 1790, when he also resigned his membership of the Royal Academy, of which he had been a founder member. He became a Baronet in 1800. In a curious reflection of the relatively low social status of artists in the early nineteenth century, Dance took care to disassociate himself with his artistic past, destroying many of his works, and exhibiting only the occasional landscape at the Royal Academy (in all cases, as ‘a gentleman’). Dance saw his great talent as a mere trade, and thus the work of Britain’s first neo-classical artist has become less well known that it otherwise should be.

The provenance and age of the sitter in this portrait suggest a possible identity as Lord Charles Somerset. Though the present example shows Somerset as a young man, there are physical similarities with other known likenesses as an adult. Furthermore, we know that Somerset was painted as a young man, and that this portrait was probably in the ownership of the family at the turn of twentieth century.

Charles Somerset was the second son of the fifth Duke of Beaufort. Like most second sons, he pursued a military career, finally attaining the rank of General in 1814. He was also a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), a Member of Parliament from 1796-1813, and Paymaster General of the armed forces under William Pitt. It is as Governor of the Cape Colony (South Africa) that Somerset is best remembered, where he was responsible for a period of further territorial expansion, the enforcement of English (as opposed to Dutch) as the official language, the introduction of British currency, and measures to implement London’s newly benevolent attitude towards slavery.
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