Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of George Canning MP 1828c.

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, Studio of 1769 - 1830

Portrait of George Canning MP, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, Studio of
Oil on board
19th Century
22 x 15 inches 61 x 38cm 61 x 38 cm 24 x 15 inches, 61 x 38 cm
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Lawrence's celebrated characterisation of the Prime Minister and statesman, George Canning, was famed in its day as amongst the artist''s most accomplished achievements. Following, as it did, the comparatively prosaic statesman portraits of the previous three generations the resultant image became the first successful expression of radical political realism in British portrait painting.

The full length portrait of Canning to which this relates was commissioned by George IV and paid for in 1828. It shows Canning standing in the chamber of the old Palace of Westminster. Canning's earliest biographer, Samuel Banford, described the statesman’s presence in the chamber thus: Canning with his smooth, bare and capacious forehead, sat there (House of Commons), a spirit beaming in his looks like that of a leopard waiting to spring upon its prey. Canning’s sudden death and political fame ensured that his portrait was in demand, and smaller full-length versions such as this would have often have been produced. This example was most likely painted by Henry Wyatt (1794-1840), one of Lawrence’s most gifted and highly painted pupils. Wyatt seems often to have painted reduced versions of Lawrence’s work. A similar example, of the Duke of York, can be found in Apsley House, London.

After a period under the influence of Fox, George Canning met the Tory, William Pitt. The two men became friends and in 1793 Pitt helped Canning become MP for the ‘rotten borough’ of Newtown in the House of Commons. In 1796 William Pitt appointed Canning as secretary of state for Foreign Affairs. This was the first of a series of posts held under Pitt that included Commissioner of the Board of Control (1799 - 1800), Paymaster-General (1800 - 1801) and Treasurer of the Navy (1801). After Pitt resigned in 1801, Canning joined the opposition to Henry Addington's government.

In May 1804 William Pitt returned to power and Canning was once again given the post of treasurer of the navy. After Pitt''s death in 1806, Canning became foreign minister in the government of the Duke of Portland, again playing an important role in planning the war against France. He conceived the daring seizure of the Danish Fleet by Lord Cathcart, severely weakening Napoleon's forces and contributing to his eventual defeat. However, Canning’s promise to send more troops to the Duke of Wellington, then fighting the French in Portugal, led to a bitter dispute with the tehn Secretary of War, Lord Castlereagh, who sent the troops to Holland instead. The inevitable dueal took place, and, after first missing each other, Castlereagh struck Canning in the thigh.

Canning left government and for the next few years concentrated on writing. He contributed to the Anti-Jacobin Review and with Sir Walter Scott helped to establish the Quarterly Review. But in 1812 the political landscape was recast with the appointment of Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister. Canning rejoined the Commons, representing the prestigious seat of Liverpool – but rejected Liverpool’s offer of Foreign Secretary on account of his refusal to serve in the same government as Castlereagh. After another four years out of Government, Canning eventually changed his mind and in 1816 became President of the Board of Control. After Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822, he replaced him as foreign minister, holding the post for the next five years.

Liverpool’s resignation in 1827 saw Canning finally become Prime Minister. The great statesman of the early nineteenth century seemed destined to be an even greater Prime Minister. However, Canning was a divisive figure, and the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel and several other leading Tories resigned from the government. Canning was forced to rely on the support of the Whigs to hold on to power.

Canning’s administration was shortlived. He died after a short illness on 8th August 1827 - in the same room in which, twenty-one years before, his first political influence, Charles James Fox, had also died.
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