Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Whitmore of Apley MP (1682-1715), c.1710 

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of William Whitmore of Apley MP (1682-1715), c.1710, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 102 cm
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From works such as this it is easy to understand why Sir Godfrey Kneller dominates our understanding of British portraiture. With Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history – not least because he painted almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life. Every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to Kneller.

Even after his death, the careers of accomplished disciples such as Charles Jervas (1675-1739) extended the limits of his influence into the 1740s, while his influence on later greats such as Reynolds is incontestable. It was, too, Kneller’s style and technique, perpetuated by engravings, which helped shape the idiom of Colonial American portraiture. And yet, for all the glories of his artistic legacy, Kneller’s reputation suffered in later generations as taste and technique changed. His bold use of impasto, and almost rough brushwork – as befitted a pupil of Rembrandt – was at odds with those eighteenth century artists who preferred the fine finishes of neo-classicism. Finally, his prolificacy was held against him, and his works were divided into too many second-rate portraits (usually misattributions), and fewer ‘good’ examples.

This portrait, however, is undoubtedly a ‘good’ Kneller, and shows the artist at his best. Furthermore, it has not been relined, and is thus a rare example of Kneller’s work in almost original condition. Immediately noticeable are the strong background colours Kneller used to enliven sitters constrained by the dictates of fashion and decorum. This baroque need for colour is twinned with a Rembrandt-esque technique of subtle tones in the face, though Kneller often allowed the ground to show through when suggesting the darker flesh tones. In both techniques, we should bear in mind Kneller’s own advice, when rebuking those who peered at his works too closely, ‘My paintings were not made for smelling of…’ The present example, in its bold design transmits itself with ballistic strength in accordance with this sentiment.

William Whitmore was one of a long line of distinguished Shropshire gentry whose fortunes were made in trade in the early sixteenth century. In 1582 the Whitmores bought the estate of Apley in Shropshire, of which a later Gothicised version inspired P G Wodehouse’s creation of Blandings Castle, the home of the eccentric Lord Emsworth and his prize pig, Empress. Such was the Whitmore’s wealth and influence that from 1660 to 1870 (with only a single break from 1710-173) they held one or more of the Parliamentary seats for Bridgnorth. In 1699 William Whitmore inherited the family home of Apley from his kinsman Sir William, who died without issue. A staunch Whig, William first sat as an MP from 1705, following his education at Oxford. He had the misfortune to be the only Whitmore to lose the family seat in an election, when in 1710, Robert Harley’s Tories swept the country to form the first Tory administration. By 1713, however, Whitmore was once more in Parliament, and later became a supporter of Robert Walpole, and would have witnessed at first hand the effects of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Whitmore held the seat until his death in 1725.
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