Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Second Earl of Egmont and his Sisters in a Landscape 1722c.

George Knapton 

The Second Earl of Egmont and his Sisters in a Landscape, George Knapton
Oil on canvas
18th Century
55 3/4 x 58 inches (141.6 x 147.3cm)
The Earls of Egmont, Avon Castle, Hampshire; Their sale Christie''s 12th December 1930 (100); Sir Francis Winnington Bt., Brockhill Court, Worcestershire.
John James Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont (1711-1770), is shown in an Italianate landscape in the company of his twin sister Catherine (1711-1748) and their younger sister Helena, Countess of Moira, (1717/18-1746). Lord Egmont is shown blowing bubbles, one of which Lady Helena has vainly tried to catch before it bursts. Though this is still a popular game for children, the soap bubble is also a traditional emblem employed by painters to suggest the brevity and evanescence of youth. Similarly, the figure of Lady Helena is clutching a small finch, which, unable to fly away, symbolises the brief idyll of youth, before time moves swiftly on through adulthood. This is an old motif in painting, and can be seen, for example in Bronzino's mid-sixteenth century portrait of the young Gianni de'Medici.

This painting -datable to c.1722- is an early example of the work of George Knapton, and in it he relies upon established conventions of child portraiture in his composition, as well as in his own remarkable talent in its painterly execution. Child portrait groups by Knapton's older contemporary John Vanderbank (1694-1734), contain similar groupings, and may have been influential for the younger painter. This portrait may be seen as a transitional work. The figures of the two girls recall directly the stock poses of earlier painters, are indebted to Knapton''s master, Jonathan Richardson. The animation which Knapton has depicted in Lord Egmont, however, looks forward to the child portraiture of Hogarth, suggesting the lively poses of works such as The Graham Children (1742). Two years after this portrait was painted, Knapton travelled to Italy, where he was to build on the methods already tentatively explored in works such as this picture.

In particular, contemporary etiquette explains the initially surprising position of the Earl's twin sister, who is standing below the level of the bank on which her siblings are resting. The result of this is that instead of towering above her seated brother, which would imply a superiority in precedence, she is on a level with him, and the heads of the children -that of young Helena in the centre having been lowered slightly during the execution of the portrait as a pentimento reveals- form a harmonious unifying element in the composition.

The figure of Lord Egmont -at this time known by his courtesy title of Viscount Perceval- is a particularly animated and engaging one. It is reminiscent of continental genre and vanitas images of children, which may well have been its inspiration, and forms an interesting contrast with the more conventional poses of the two girls, which find echoes in a great many contemporary British portraits. The extreme delicacy with which the boy holds the stem is as finely suggested as the bubble itself. Much about the figure leads one to believe that it was a motif that the artist was eager to employ, and relished for its animation and -in the field of British portraiture- novelty. This desire to depict a seated bubble-blower would also explain why Knapton did not suggest the precedence among the children by placing Lord Egmont standing above his sisters, which would have been a far less elegant solution to the problem.

Lord Egmont succeeded to his father's earldom in 1748, and like his father embarked on a political career. Whilst still under age he was returned for the Irish seat of Dingle Icouch in Kerry, which he continued to represent until he succeeded to the peerage. This Irish title was, of course, no impediment to remaining a member of the British House of Commons, where he was a vigorous member of the Opposition Party and a thorn in the side of Sir Robert Walpole -into whose activities he demanded an inquest in 1742. In the next year he wrote a defence of the political defection to the Opposition of Lord Bath, which passed through many editions and has been referred to by Coxe, Walpole''s biographer, as ''one of the best political pamphlets ever written.'' (1) Even his opponents were forced to admit his powers as a Parliamentarian, and by 1749, as a partisan of the Prince of Wales and Lord of the Bedchamber to the Prince''s Household, he was recognised as the principal figure in the Opposition. Horace Walpole observed that Egmont ''made as great a figure as was ever made in a short time''(2).

For the remaining two years of the Prince of Wales's life, Egmont was his chief political advisor. At the Prince's death Egmont was sent by the Princess to collect the Prince''s political papers and to burn them in here presence at Leicester House. Afterwards the Earl held a council of war for leaders of the Opposition at Egmont House, although this group failed to reach any consensus and dissolved without consequence.

Recognising that there was no further support for the Prince's party -least of all from the Princess who recognisded a need to be reconciled to the prevailing government- he accepted membership of the Privy Council in 1755, though he refused the leadership of the House of Commons when offered by the Duke of Newcastle in the following year. His avid desire for an English peerage was finally gratified in 1762 when he was created Baron Lovel and Holland of Engmore in Somerset. He refused to take part in any ministry that included the Earl of Chatham, but continued to make his mark with controversial sentiments, such as his contribution to a debate in November 1768, in which Lord Egmont ''made a warm and able speech against riots, and on the licentiousness of the people,'' maintaining that, ''the Lords alone could save the country; their dictatorial power could and had the authority to do it.'' (3)

Lord Egmont died at Pall Mall on December 4th 1770, aged 59. By his second marriage to Catherine Compton, created, in the last year of the Earl's life, Baroness Arden in her own right, he was the father of Spencer Perceval the Prime Mininster (1762-1812).
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.