Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Buller of Trenant, Cornwall, 1790s 

Robert Home (1752-1834)

Portrait of John Buller of Trenant, Cornwall, 1790s, Robert Home
Oil on canvas
18th Century
28 3/4 x 24 in (73 x 61 cm)
The sitter His brother, Admiral Sir Edward Buller 1st Bt. (1764-1824); By descent to Sir Edward’s daughter Ann Maria Buller Fullerton Elphinstone (d.1845); Her son, 15th Baron Elphinstone (1828-1893); Thence by descent;
Robert Home’s Accounts & Sitters Book, MS copy, National Portrait Gallery Archive, London.
This portrait is an important addition to the work of the leading Anglo-Indian artist, Robert Home, and represents one of his most accomplished works. Home was one of the most successful English portraitists working in Calcutta at the end of the eighteenth century. His evocative and coolly atmospheric portraits afford us a rare glimpse of daily life for the British in India, at a time when Britain’s position in the subcontinent was undergoing a dramatic change.

John Buller was like any number of English gentry who travelled to India in search of a career and fortune. He began, when still a teenager, as an East India Company ‘writer’ in Bengal in 1777. He soon progressed rapidly up the Company ladder, becoming a ‘collector’ in Tipperah (present day Tripura), a post that made him proxy-ruler of a large area of East Bengal, the wealthiest part of British India. A surviving acquatint of the 1790s shows Buller’s residence at Comillah (in present day Bangladesh), and clearly demonstrates the comfortable position that he enjoyed. The main residence, a large two storey mansion, complete with verandah and outbuildings, overlooks a sizeable ‘tank’, or reservoir.

It is no surprise, therefore, that this portrait shows Buller in a moment of supreme relaxation, with a hookah drawn casually over his lap. In 1793, three years before this portrait, he had written home, ‘there is nothing indeed that this government can give me… which is superior to my present appointment, but the residency of Lucknow, or of Benares, and neither of these do I ever expect to get, so I suppose I shall retain my present post as long as I continue in India.’[History of Parliament, the Commons, 1790-1820, R.G. Thorne, p298].

Sittings for this portrait are recorded in Robert Home’s account book, and began on 5th July 1796. Home’s entry records Buller sat for a ‘head’, and that it cost 500 rupees. He was evidently happy with the picture, for his brother Henry and cousin Charles also sat for Home later in the same month, likewise choosing ‘heads’ at 500 rupees each. Given that 1796 was the year Buller planned to return to England – indeed he even secured election in absentia to the House of Commons, for the seat of East Looe, in Cornwall - it seems likely that the work was intended as a souvenir of his time in India. After all, what better way to symbolise your Indian experiences than with a hookah?

However, a number of factors forced Buller to change his plans. There was first the delicate matter of his serially adulterous first wife, Catherine. She not only left him in August 1796, but her behaviour continued to cost him ‘very large sums’. ‘It would be positive madness’, he wrote to friends in England in 1798, ‘to take my departure now…. if, upon my arrival in Europe, I found myself liable for any large sum on account of Mrs Buller’[ibid.] Buller was forced to write to William Pitt, and surrender his Commons seat. Furthermore, the year after this portrait was painted, Richard Wellesley took up the post of Governor-General, and immediately began a massive expansion of British control in India. Until Wellesley arrived in 1797, the Directors of the East India Company had determined on a policy of peaceful retrenchment, the emphasis being on trade, not war. However, Wellesley’s aggressive and costly military campaigns against the likes of Tipu Sultan in the south, and the Maharathas in the north, ensured an end to the days of the relaxed imperialism shown here in Buller’s portrait.

Buller eventually returned to England in 1802, and immediately sought election to Parliament for East Looe, a seat that his family interests controlled. He was a supporter of William Pitt’s second administration, and of Grenville after Pitt’s death. Buller held no political office, preferring instead to enjoy his retirement and wealth. He bought, for example, an estate at Trenant Park in Cornwall for £15,000 in 1806. Buller married again (Augusta in 1805), but had no children. He left his estates to his younger brother, Admiral Sir Edward Buller. Sir Edward’s daughter, Anna Maria, married (in 1824) a fellow Anglo-Indian, Lt-Col. James Buller Fullerton Elphinstone, 3rd son of the 10th Baron Elphinstone. Their eldest son became 15th Baron Elphinstone in 1861, and it is through subsequent descent in the Elphinstone family that this portrait has descended until the present day.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.