Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington (1683-1756), late 1720s 1720s

Jonathan Richardson 

Portrait of William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington (1683-1756), late 1720s, Jonathan Richardson
Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 x 23 ¼ inches 73.7 x 60 cm
Earls of Harrington Collection, until sold; Sotheby's 19th February 1964, lot 20 (as by Kneller); Bt Spiller, £320;
John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, (London 1977) p135, plate 361.
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William Stanhope was something of an eighteenth century renaissance man. Despite little family wealth, and no obvious skills in oratory or even political cunning, he became a successful diplomat, politician, and, as this portrait attests, soldier. Contemporaries attest that his achievements were due mainly to his affability, by which he earned the support of leading statesmen and monarchs, and thus access to high office.

Stanhope’s early career saw his greatest successes. He was closely involved in European politics and power diplomacy during a period when the continental balance of power began to shift in favour of England. After a spell in the army from 1710 to 1715, Stanhope was appointed plenipotentiary to Madrid. The Spanish had not yet come to terms with their declining power, and Stanhope’s task was made almost impossible by the ineptness and surrealism of the Spain’s Government. Philip V, for example, suffered bouts of madness, and periodically attempted to mount horses depicted in paintings and tapestries. Nevertheless, Stanhope was able to make good contacts and elicit important information. Despite the outbreak of war between Spain and England during the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), Stanhope was considered by both sides to be blameless, and enjoyed the full support of George I. He fought a number of successful engagements during the war, most notably as a volunteer with the French army where he commanded a raid on Spanish ships in the port of St Andero.

After the war, Stanhope returned to Madrid as ambassador. He juggled the twin concerns of Spanish support for Jacobitism, and Britain’s ownership of Gibraltar, as well as Philip of Spain’s increasing decline. He achieved a notable coup in 1726, when the disgraced Spanish first Minister, Baron Ripperda, fled to Stanhope’s house and revealed Spain’s plans for an invasion of England. In 1727 Harrington was deputed as the British plenipotentiary to the congress of Aix-la-Chappelle, for which work he was created Lord Harrington in 1730. In the same year he became Secretary of State for the Northern Department (effectively foreign secretary) during Sir Robert Walpole’s administration, where he continued the Prime Minister’s broadly peaceful policies. On Walpole’s fall he became Lord President of the Council. However, Harrington thereafter managed to lose the favour of the King, mainly as a result of his suggestions over Hanoverian policy, and in 1746 he left to become Viceroy of Ireland. He died in 1756, having never lost the sense of financial security that perhaps encouraged him to hold onto office for longer than he should.

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 remarkably fresh and lively portrait represents the earliest known likeness of Harrington, and was probably painted before his elevation to the peerage.

(1) R. Strong, The British Portrait, (1991), p. 124.
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