Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of General Charles Cornwallis (1738 - 1805) 1770c.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton 

Portrait of General Charles Cornwallis (1738 - 1805), Hugh Douglas Hamilton
18th Century
9 x 7 inches 22.9 x 17.8 cm oval
Probably, the Skelton family of Papcastle, Cumbria (the sitter’s wife) by 1823.
Walter G. Strickland, ‘Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Portrait-Painter’, The Walpole Society, Volume II, 1913, p.104; John Ingamells, ‘Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-90, National Portrait Gallery’, London 2004, p121
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Charles Cornwallis was one of Britain’s leading military commanders and statesman in the late eighteenth century. He is best known as the British army’s second-in-command during the American War of Independence, and for the subsequent decisive surrender at Yorktown in 1781. This intimate portrait is one of Cornwallis’ earliest likenesses, and was drawn in 1772 by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

Cornwallis was first and foremost a soldier, and entered the army as a lowly ensign in 1756. He spent a number of years studying military tactics on the continent, and it was there that he saw his first action, fighting as a volunteer in the Prussian army in numerous battles between 1758-61. In the few short years of peace that followed, Cornwallis tried his hand at politics, and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1762. He was a traditional Whig, instinctively against overweening monarchical power and ‘big’ government. He particularly opposed Britain’s attempts to extend power of the Colonies (America) and voted against the infamous Stamp Act. But he was no radical, and was scrupulously loyal to the King personally. It was principally for this reason - for he was then no great force politically - that he was granted a number of small posts and offices, such as Constable of the Tower of London. No further promotion followed, for his marriage in 1768 to Jemima Tulikens, a noted beauty, led Cornwallis away from politics, and into comfortable seclusion at Culford Park in Suffolk. It was during these years that this portrait was drawn, and it is, appropriately, the only likeness to show Cornwallis in private dress.

The outbreak of the American war of independence in 1775 ended Cornwallis’s life of settled domesticity. He immediately volunteered to suppress the revolutionaries, and sailed in early 1776 from Ireland as Major-General in command of seven regiments. His sharp tactical excellence, and the battle-readiness of troops whom he had personally commanded for over a decade, gained him a prompt victory over George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in August, and thus helped win New York for the British. Cornwallis was actively involved in the fighting himself. There followed further victories, most notably at Brandywine in 1777.

However, Cornwallis will always be associated with the catastrophic defeat at Yorktown in October 1781. His initial plan had been to fight an aggressive series of battles in Virginia, but he was ordered by Sir Henry Clinton to establish a stronghold at Yorktown, and await reinforcements from the Royal Navy. Washington, on hearing of Cornwallis’ position at this exposed point midway up the Chesapeake Bay, and emboldened by the presence of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet, ordered a decisive attack. The siege was shortlived, and the surrender of seven thousand men (about a quarter of the total British force in America) ended Britain’s last chances of victory in the war. Lord North, the then Prime Minister, resigned, and the incoming Government sued for peace.

Cornwallis was not personally held responsible for the Yorktown debacle. The British effort had been hampered from the outset by the perennial problems of communication and supply, and there was also the symptomatic distraction of squabbling commanders, who were by turns hostile and incompetent. Cornwallis was regarded as something of a heroic failure, and, in the best British tradition, was thus treated almost as a victor.

His posting to India as Governor-General in 1786 was clearly a promotion, and it was a promotion deserved. In a society where military status and rank were usually bought, and rarely earned, there were frighteningly few really able British commanders. Cornwallis was one of those few, and was proud of his disdain for corruption and ‘jobbery’. He took steps to route out such practices when he arrived in India, though he was also condemnatory of similar perceived vices in the native population. His greatest legacy in India is the first defeat of Tipu Sultan in the South.

Cornwallis returned to Britain in 1795 to take a seat in Pitt the Younger’s Cabinet as master-general of the ordinance, with the specific task of preparing for the expected French invasion. He was later given two additional offices, as commander-in-chief and Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. Two months after his arrival in Ireland Cornwallis took to the battlefield once more, and defeated the French invasion force under General Joseph Humbert.

Cornwallis did not enjoy his time in Ireland, and the Irish did not enjoy him. Bishop Percy noted that although Cornwallis was “very civil and pleasant, he will not be a favourite here, for he is very sober himself, and does not push the bottle. They also think him too merciful on the rebels.” [GEC, Complete Peerage, Vol. 1., p456] This last criticism, if such it was, rang true, for the enlightened Cornwallis abhorred the ruling class’s barbarous treatment of Catholics; “murder appears to be their favourite pastime” he wrote [ODNB 2004]. It was Cornwallis’ consistent, yet unfulfilled, pleas to Pitt for Catholic emancipation that led to the Act of Union in 1800.

The final acts of Cornwallis’ long and varied career involved signing the peace of Amiens with Napoleon in 1802, and a final spell as Governor-General in 1805. The directors of the East India Company were reeling from the expense of Marquess Wellesley’s wars of expansion, and Cornwallis’s role was to conclude peace terms, primarily parsimonious, with the various native factions. But he died shortly after his arrival, and is buried on the banks of the Ganges at Ghazipur. His monument survives there to this day.
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