Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole 1730c.

Stephen Slaughter 

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, Stephen Slaughter
Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 x 22 inches 73.7 x 55.9 cm
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This portrait shows Britain’s first true Prime Minister – not admittedly a title used at the date save in derision – at the date when he was consolidating his remarkable power.

Walpole, the favoured minister of King George I, had become Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury in 1721, but he was obliged to share power with his brother-in-law Lord Townshend the Secretary for the Northern Department who was responsible for foreign affairs. Walpole’s service to the King made him odious to the Prince of Wales his son, and it was widely expected that the Prince’s accession in 1727 as King George II would spell the end for the mighty minister.

He did indeed relinquish power to Sir Spencer Compton, later Lord Wilmington, but Compton’s political naivety and sheer unsuitability for high office were revealed almost at once. Daunted by the task of drafting the King’s Accession Speech he asked Walpole to do it for him, and from that moment it was as though Sir Robert had never been away. Compton was soon persuaded to withdraw, and with Townshend’s retirement in 1730 Sir Robert Walpole became politically supreme, sole director of Government and truly the first holder of the office now recognised as Prime Minister.

His natural talents as a born politician would have carried him far, but he was helped in the transition from George I to a son who ordinarily should have hated him by the shrewdness of the latter’s wife. Queen Caroline knew that Walpole was the only man for the job and by ruling her husband with the appearance of always acquiescing ensured Walpole’s steady rise in her husband’s estimation. Her death in 1737 did not affect his position – much as he feared it would as she lay dying – but involvement in wars which Walpole had tried strenuously to avoid, and his own age combined with the concerted efforts of his enemies in Parliament and without – especially Frederick Prince of Wales – led to his losing a vote of confidence in 1742.

He resigned and was raised to the peerage as Earl of Orford, dying three years later in 1745.
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