Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mr Sneyd 1753

Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

Portrait of Mr Sneyd, Allan Ramsay
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
By descent in the Sneyd family at Keele Hall, Staffordshire Sneyd sale, Christie''s, 27 June 1924, Lot.85. Knoedler & Co., New York. Collection of Dorothy D.M.Macauley, U.S.A. Exhibited: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 13 June - 31 August 1972.
This portrait of Ralph Sneyd by Allan Ramsay can be dated to 1753, shortly before the artist's second trip to Rome. This year is seen as a key point in Ramsay's artistic development, being the first time that he fully shows his assimilation of the qualities of contemporary French portraiture and the influence of artist such as Perroneau, Nattier and the crayon-painter de La Tour.
This portrait of Ralph Sneyd is closely comparable with the signed and dated portrait of Thomas Lamb of Rye (National Gallery of Scotland) of 1753, considered the epitome of Ramsay's second style. In both, strong contrasts of tone and colour are avoided for a lighter, more harmonious palette. This is achieved specifically in the pastel-like shades of powder-blue in the jackets and the light pinks of the fleshtones, unified by soft, sympathetic lighting. Futhermore, there is an elegance to the poses and a rhythmic gracefulness to the overall design that owes its origins to French rococo painting. More than anything else, it is this ability to combine sensitive likeness with the fashionable elegance of European painting that sets Ramsay apart from his contemporaries.

Coming from a landed family who could trace their origins back to the thirteenth-century, at the age of 17, Ralph Sneyd (1723-93) inherited substantial estates which included Keele, Bradwell, Sneyde and Tunstall. His father died in 1733, and his untimely demise was compounded by those of his three elder brothers. This resulted in enormous legal and financial complications that seriously threatened the family's estates. The sitter was the son of Ralph and his wife Anne, daughter of Alien Holford of Davenham, Chester. His father had been a respected local dignitary, being High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1720 and Member of Parliament for the county in 1713.

Despite the instability of his formative years, the sitter possessed a formidable guardian in his grandmother, Frances, Lady Chester and he was educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, from where he matriculated on 21 October 1743.

He married on 17 April 1750 at St.Martin-in-the-Fields, London, Barbara, daughter of Sir Walter Wagstaffe Bagot, 5th Bt. of Blithfield by his wife, Barbara, daughter of William, 1st Earl of Dartmouth. The union represented a considerable coup for Ralph Sneyd, as the Bagots were one of the most influential and wealthy families in Staffordshire. The match also brought a dowry amounting to the considerable sum of 4,000. However, the basis of the marriage was not apparently money.

On 9 April 1750, Ralph wrote to his grand-mother, Lady Chester:
I hope on Easter Tuesday or Wednesday to be married to ye woman of all others I adore...

By her (who died 23 February 1797) he had 11 children. Of their seven sons, two entered the Church, one died in America (1776) and another in India (1790). Walter, the eldest son was in command for 14 years of the Staffordshire Regiment at Windsor, where it acted for many years as Bodyguard to George III. He was also M.P. for Castle Rising and High Sheriff of Staffordshire. From the few personal documents that survive Ralph Sneyd emerges as a notable bonviveur. The most illuminating information comes from the detailed household accounts. He was a generous host, organising regular musical evenings, dinner parties and balls for his wide circle of friends that included the Newdigates of Arbury, the Wedgwoods of Etruria, the Davenports of Capesthorne, the Fitzherberts of Swinnerton and the Ansons of Shugborough. An enthusiastic musician, the accounts also detail the purchase of bows and fiddle-strings for his violin and violincello.

Ralph Sneyd was a country-man by nature, also a keen sportsman, and much of his time seems to have been spent hunting, shooting and fishing on his estates. The family regularly went horse-racing, enjoying trips to Lichfield, Chester, Nantwich and Knutsford.

However, he was also an astute businessman who rebuilt the family fortune partly through the development of iron and coal interests. He built up blast-furnaces and iron-works at Silverdale and was one of the early pioneers of the industrial revolution. He also had an interest in the Trent and Mersey Canal and became one of the original members of the canal company which was set up in 1766.

A wealthy man, by the mid-1770s his estate was about 6,000 acres in size and in the 1780s his estimated gross income from these annually was something over 5,000. The family spent two six-month sojourns in the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1782/3 and 1783/4. For these trips large sums were spent at local and London tailor for the latest fashions, particularly for the daughters, for whom the Bath season was an opportunity to find a suitable husband. The Sneyds, like a number of other landed families in the area, were Jacobite sympathisers, although Ralph seems to have taken little interest in politics. He was, however, a considerable humanitarian and he spent many years as a Justice of the Peace. He donated generously to charity and regularly gave gifts of food and money to the poor of his parishes, even paying for their funerals. He also treated his servants and estate workers well, paying them annual bonuses and contributing towards the purchase of horses and livestock for them.

By 1763, the family was sufficiently solvent to undertake the rebuilding of the main family house, Keele Hall, which had been abandoned for three decades. His friend, Sir Roger Newdigate, who had recently rebuilt Arbury Hall in the Gothick style, sent designs for windows, doorways and for a large marble chimney-piece in the same style. By the summer of 1765 the Sneyds were back in residence at Keele and began ordering new furniture, including for the Parlor and Chamber from Gillows of Lancaster. The park was landscaped by William Ernes, who was formerly head-gardener at Kedleston Hall.

Keele Hall was subsequently rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century by Ralph's grandson. A photograph of the Great Hall taken in around 1880 shows our portrait hanging in situ to the left of the fire-place. It is also included in an inventory, drawn up in March 1899. The contents of the house were sold at Christie's in several sales in 1924. Our portrait was sold on 27 June as Lot.85. The house and estate now belong to the University of Keele.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.