Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford 1710c.

Jonathan Richardson 

Portrait of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, Jonathan Richardson
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50x40 inches, 126 x 102 cm
The Frewen family collection
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Robert Harley can claim to have been the first British Prime Minister, leading an essentially Tory ministry in the final years of Queen Anne’s reign from 1710-1714. His career is marked by a slow, or thoughtful, transition from Whig to Tory, during which time he also served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1701-05.

Harley was born into politics. His father, Sir Edward Harley, was a staunch Parliamentarian and Presbyterian, and during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 father and son had little hesitation in raising troops to seize the town of Worcester in support of William of Orange. Later that year, Robert was elected to Parliament, and quickly demonstrated a skill for mastering the procedures of the House. He soon became an unofficial leader of a coalition of Whigs and Moderate Tories who were opposed to the Government of King William III, but his specific opposition to the size (and cost) of standing armies indicates an early Tory leaning.

It was, as so often during Harley’s lifetime, a crisis over the Royal succession that transformed his career. In 1700 the Duke of Gloucester, Princess Anne’s only son and heir, died, thus resurrecting old fears of the Catholic Jacobite succession. King William III chose Harley, and practically Harley alone, with whom to negotiate the transition of power to the House of Hanover. As a result Harley accepted the Court’s nomination as Speaker of the House of Commons, a decision seen by many as a surprising volte face. But the move was a shrewd one, for within a year William had died, and Queen Anne’s most trusted councilors, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, together with Lord Godolphin, were also Harley’s close friends. Together they formed the ‘cockpit’ of Anne’s leading advisers. By 1704 Harley was Secretary of State, and with Marlborough directed the fighting against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A series of disagreements forced his resignation in 1708, but his careful movement to the Tories, at a time of growing dissatisfaction of the Whig-directed war, ensured that Anne could only turn to him when she formed a new ministry in 1710. Harley was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and won a large parliamentary majority in that years election. In 1711 he was granted a peerage, made Lord of the Treasury, installed as a Knight of the Garter, and – bizarrely – survived a French assassination attempt only through the thickness of his luxuriously gilded coat.

Harley was now at the peak of his career – Prime Minister in all but name, and leading what was effectively the first Tory Government. His main priority was to stem the enormous costs of the recent war – total cost over £150 million – and he bought (temporary) relief through stock in the South Sea Company. Peace was negotiated and declared with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The Treaty, however, met with the approbation of the future George I, and once again the issue of the succession interrupted Harley’s career. His leading colleague, Lord Bolingbroke, not only began to undermine him, but declared for the Stuart ‘Old Pretender’ James III. Though Harley was no Jacobite, the association guaranteed the lasting suspicion of George I. He never held office after Anne’s death.

Jonathan Richardson has been described as ''the ablest of the painters who came to prominence during the last decade of Kneller''s life and who flourished after his death''(1). A pupil of Riley, he went on to teach both Knapton and Hudson, and published writings on painting that called for imagination and characterisation rather than a mere mechanical reproduction of physiognomy. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a one time student of Hudson''s, was the most prominent of Richardson''s successors to acknowledge the influence of works such as Theory of Painting and Essay on the Art of Criticism and the Science of a Connoisseur.

This portrait is an important addition to the iconography of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford. It is later in date than the familiar portrait of the Earl as Lord High Treasurer by Sir Godfrey Kneller painted in 1714 (National Portrait Gallery, London) which shows him in Garter Robes and with the white wand of office, and the portrait again in Garter robes with wand by Richardson (Christ Church Oxford). The present portrait by contrast clearly belongs to the period after his dismissal in 1714 by Queen Anne, and appears to depict the Earl as a private gentleman, rather than as a minister of state.

After his resignation, Harley had consoled himself with the company of intellectual fellow Tories such as Matthew Prior and Jonathan Swift. Both of these were keen patrons of Richardson, as was Oxford’s son Lord Harley, and it is possible that this more intimate portrait of the Earl is related to this circle of patronage. In a letter to Prior of January 25th 1720 Swift remarks: ‘I extremely long for Lord Oxford’s picture which he promised me a hundred times.’ Swift suggests Dahl or Kneller to be the painters, but Prior commends Richardson ‘whom I take to be a better painter than any named in your letter…’(2)

This portrait was executed during the Earl’s lifetime, and in showing the Earl in a black suit and white gloves seems more informal, and appears to be of a type that might be commissioned more as a record of friendship that statesmanship. Here, considerable attention has been lavished on the execution of the face, hands and costume, whilst the white gloves and the details of the sword hilt and garter star which stand out against the dark ensure a remarkable elegance of effect. The enameled badge of the lesser Garter ‘George’, is depicted with a detail almost unsurpassed in any portrait of the period.

(1) R. Strong, The British Portrait, (1991), p. 124.
(2) Quoted in Carol Gibson-Wood Jonathan Richardson, Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment, Yale 2000, p.65
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