Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham KG (1753–1813) late 1780s

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham KG (1753–1813), Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 102 cm
The sitter; By descent through the Grenville family at Butleigh Court, until 1949; with Newhouse Galleries, New York; American Private Collection.
‘National Portrait Gallery, Regency Portraits’, Richard Walker, London 1985, Vol I p73.
Bristol City Art Gallery 1937-1949.
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George Grenville was twice Viceroy of Ireland, and a notable statesman in the late eighteenth century. In some senses his political career was a product of position and patronage, for though he was intellectually gifted and culturally advanced – as this portrait attests – Grenville was not naturally suited to the challenges of politics at the highest level. He was occasionally impudent, and like many of his peers had a keen eye for self-enrichment at the state’s expense. This last trait, in addition to his obvious physical bulk, meant that he was easily caricatured (by Gillray et al) as a privileged pig at the public trough. And yet, Grenville was far from exceptional in moulding the political system to his personal ambition. In eighteenth century politics, to be in office was to be in credit. From that spring grew almost every cultural advancement of the century. As such, this portrait is a reminder of Georgian excess on the one hand, and Georgian refinement on the other.

Grenville certainly had an easy start in politics. He was, first, the son of a Prime Minister, Lord Grenville. He was also: rich; heir to a peerage; destined to inherit, among other estates, Stowe; appointed a Teller to the Exchequer by the age of ten; and an MP by the age of 21. In 1779 he succeeded his uncle as Earl Temple, and enjoyed an influential position in the House of Lords, maintaining a steady hostility to Britain’s conduct in the American war of independence. When the Marquess of Rockingham took over from the defeated Lord North in 1782, Grenville became Viceroy of Ireland for the first time.

Grenville’s first rule of Ireland was, however, brief, and he returned to London in 1783 with the fall of the ministry. He was active in opposition to the ensuing Fox-North coalition, playing a pivotal role in helping George III defeat Charles James Fox’s radical India Bill, and thus leading to the defeat of that short-lived administration. For this service Grenville imprudently demanded a Dukedom. He was lucky instead to get a marquessate and a promise of the Garter, for despite then being one of the King’s favourites, his services barely justified such reward. He was also appointed Home Secretary in Pitt the Younger’s new administration – but he resigned just three days later over a minor quarrel. He thus holds the record as Britain’s shortest-lived Home Secretary.

However, Grenville’s second posting to Ireland, in 1787, presented another chance to demonstrate his political abilities. He showed impressive liberal vision in becoming the first Viceroy to champion Catholic emancipation, while his active support for both Pitt and the occasionally deranged George III ensured that Ireland remained loyal to the Crown at a time of great political uncertainty. Emboldened, Grenville again demanded his dukedom – and was again refused. Disconsolate and feeling thoroughly dejected - “[I am] the most disgraced public man if no mark of favour or approbation is given to me”[1] – he returned to Britain in 1789 to concentrate on building his family’s power and fortune. In this final task he was most successful. His marriage to the sole heiress of the Duke of Chandos added huge wealth, while the completion of Stowe and a London town house set new standards in luxury. Finally, his strong support of the family clique, the ‘Grenvillites’, led to the creation of a new power bloc in both the Commons and the Lords, and helped ensure that his brother, William Grenville, became Prime Minister in 1807.

This portrait was painted at about the time of Grenville’s elevation to become Marquess of Buckingham. Gainsborough painted Grenville on two occasions; the other version, now in a private collection in Cornwall, shows the sitter in Peer’s robes. The presence of a copy of the Cornwall picture in the Mansion House in Dublin, which dates from Grenville’s second spell as Lord Lieutenant, probably indicates that it was conceived as an overtly political statement. The present picture, however, shows Grenville in a more intimate and academic pose, and was doubtless commissioned as a private image. The studied background of books and papers was clearly intended to demonstrate more than a passing love of books, for ‘bibliophilia’ ran in the family – his brother Thomas Grenville bequeathed twenty thousand volumes to the British Library. The pose struck by Grenville is redolent of his colleague, Lord Charlemont’s, reminiscences; “he knows a great deal, but is too fond of communicating that knowledge, and too verbose and minute….”[2] Grenville is shown here wearing the ‘Windsor Uniform’ introduced by George III in the mid 1770s for favoured courtiers and members of the royal family.

This picture was in the collection of the Grenville’s of Butleigh Court, of whom the Hon. George Neville Grenville was descended from Buckingham’s sister, Catherine Grenville, Baroness Braybrooke. Lord Braybrooke, as the Marquess of Buckingham’s brother-in-law, became a ‘Grenvillite’ as MP for Buckingham in 1780s. In Buckingham’s will, Braybrooke was left either “a ring or other memorial of me”, and it is possible that by that route that did the present portrait pass from Buckingham’s possession to the Grenville’s of Butleigh.
[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
[2] G E Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, p407.
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