Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Spencer Perceval (1762 - 1812), c.1812 

George Francis Joseph (1764-1846)

Portrait of Spencer Perceval (1762 - 1812), c.1812, George Francis Joseph
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
The Wilson family, Richmond, Surrey. Christie''s, 25 October 1963, Lot.97. Collection of E.J. de Tracy Kelly Esq., Audley House School, Bicester, until 1995.
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This portrait of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated while in office, is among the finest of the relatively small number of images of the sitter that were painted. All the surviving portraits are posthumous and based on a death-masks and drawings.

Joseph, who is said to have been a native of Dublin, was a portrait and subject painter, who enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy in 1784. He practised in London for most of his career and was a consistent exhibitor at both the Royal Academy and British Institution.

A contemporary description of Perceval records that he was .. .unusually pale and only emphasised it by habitually dressing in black -1, something of which is evoked in these portraits. The artist produced two portrait variants both of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1813. The first, of which there is an example in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1031), is a three-quarter image depicting Perceval wearing black Court suit and seated in a large Regency chair with the First Lord of the Treasury's robe over its arm. On the table to his left are despatch boxes, an inkstand and papers. There is a half length variant of this type in Downing Street.

The other type, to which our portrait belongs, is a half-length and depicts Perceval turned towards the left, wearing a black coat and neckcloth, holding a paper in his left hand. Versions include those in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 4), the House of Commons, at Trinity College Cambridge and Apsley House.
The success of this portrait resulted in the demand for these autograph versions whose individual status is hard to unravel. Some bear inscriptions with the sitter's and artist's name and other have the lettering Regency Bill on the parliamentary paper that he holds. However, the quality of the painting in our portrait would suggest that it was amongst the prime of these and may even be one the two portraits exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1813. The portrait was also engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner and published 1 August 1812 and re-issued the next year.
The sitter, the second son of Sir John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, before being called to the Bar. He joined the Midland circuit and obtained crown briefs on the trial of Thomas Paine, in 1792 and Home Tooke, in 1794. In the latter year he was made counsel to the board of the Admiralty and in 1796 he became a King's Counsel. In 1793 he bought a large house in Lincoln''s Inn Fields with money settled on his wife by her father and he resolved to make money by the law. However, he was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton in 1796, where he was a supporter of Pitt. He was appointed solicitor-general under Addington in 1801 and the next year, attorney-general. He was chancellor of the Exchequer under the Duke of Portland in 1807 and was successful with his budget scheme to convert 3 per-cent stock into terminable annuities. He succeeded Portland as Prime Minister in 1809 but found great difficulty in forming a ministry owing to the dissatisfaction of Canning and Castlereagh, and his government was generally regarded as weak. On 11 May 1812 Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham, a bankrupt who had a grievance against government.
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