Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Charles Montagu 1st Earl of Halifax KG PRS (1661 - 1715) 1714c.

Michael Dahl, studio of 

Charles Montagu 1st Earl of Halifax KG PRS (1661 - 1715), Michael Dahl, studio of
Oil on canvas
17th Century
48 x 38 inches 121.6 x 96.3 cm
Capt. F. Montagu, Milton Park, Doncaster; His sale Christie''s June 28th 1946; Lord Bossom; Christie''s April 29th 1966 (lot 46) bt. Weiss 56gns as Kneller.
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As the younger son of a younger son of the Earl of Manchester, the judge and statesman who had tried Sir Walter Raleigh and later been one of the most loyal advisors of King Charles I, Halifax was born with excellent connections, but with insufficient leverage to attain any great position. After Westminster and Trinity College Cambridge – where he became the lifelong friend of Sir Isaac Newton – he was destined for a career in the Church. His interests were primarily literary, and his most famous work was the satire on Dryden produced in collaboration with Matthew Prior The Hind and the Panther transvers'd to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse, written in 1687.

Politics supervened, however, and in the year after signing the declaration to the Prince of Orange in 1688 Montagu entered Parliament as member for Malden, which seat he held until 1695. He soon gained the favour of King William and was appointed a Lord of the Treasury in 1689. In this office he soon showed a flair for financial planning, and for bold strokes of innovation. In December of that year he devised a scheme – the origin of the National Debt – to raise one million pounds by taxation of wines and spirits, on the credit of which he sold life annuities which reverted at death to the government. Two years later he engineered the Tonnage Bill, intended to meet the costs of the French War. In order to raise the required £1,200,000 he organised the subscribers into a corporation, known as the Governor and Company of the Bank of England. The corporation, which in unbroken pedigree is the present Bank of England, was allowed to treat the loan to the Government as part of its capital, was so popular a conception that the money required was raised in a mere ten days. Deservedly Montagu was then appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A further and equally pressing problem of England’s finances was the alarming depreciation of the currency, brought about by the process of clipping, through which the gold and silver coinage in circulation was but a fraction in weight of its assumed value. In concert with John Lord Somers, Matthew Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, Montagu devised the milled coinage that made this abuse impossible, and paid for this reissue of the coinage by the invention of the window tax. The shortfall in the circulating coinage during the four-year period of its reintroduction was met by the issue of exchequer bills in value of five to one hundred pounds, and distributed about the country by post. Montagu’s considerable financial competence was rewarded in 1697 when he was appointed First Lord of the Treasury, a post he held concurrently with that of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Somewhat inevitably, however, this unbounded rise was viewed with jealousy and resentment. By 1699 his enemies were alleging misappropriation, and calling him ‘Filcher.’ In May 1699 he resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, relinquishing the office of First Lord of the Treasury in November. He was raised to the peerage in December of the following year, but this did not save him from the accusations of his pursuers. Although he faced down an unsuccessful attempt to attain him, he was nonetheless struck off the list of the Privy Council, and suffering the vindictiveness of the high Tories, continued out of office for the whole of the reign of Queen Anne. Nevertheless, he undertook various diplomatic tasks ideally suited to his abilities. In 1706 he was one of the commissioners who undertook the Union of England with Scotland, and in the same year he delivered the insignia of the Order of the Garter to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I.

At the death of Queen Anne he was appointed one of the Lords Justices, the regents who governed the country in the name of King George until he should arrive in person. In October 1714 he was restored to his office of First Lord of the Treasury, invested with the Order of the Garter and promoted to the Earldom of Halifax. Unfortunately for Halifax, although he had survived into a reign that would be more congenial to him, his health did not permit him to enjoy it long, and he died of an inflammation of the lungs in May 1715.

His chief monuments must be the establishment of the Bank of England and the reform of the coinage. Although politics took the place of letters in his career, he is still known for his friendship with poets and wits such as Prior and Swift, for his friendship with Sir Isaac Newton and for holding the office of President of the Royal Society between 1695 and 1698.

This portrait is a version of a portrait type attributed to Dahl and dateable by the Garter sash to the last year of Halifax’s life. A version in the collection of the Bank of England may have more claim to be autograph, and to display more than this example the linear, planar quality associated with Dahl’s characterisation. The more over-blown sense of the sitter’s features conveyed in this portrait seems almost to be influenced by a familiarity with Kneller’s characterisation of Lord Halifax, most particularly in his Kit-cat portrait of c.1703 – 1710. Certainly this portrait, and other examples of the type, have often caused some confusion among cataloguers, and the composition has often been attributed to Kneller or his studio. The frontal pose is more often encountered with Dahl’s female sitters, - it can be found in the ‘Petworth Beauties’ of the 1690s, for example – but there is a straightforwardly comparable use of the same pose in a male portrait in William Luckyn 1st Viscount Grimston c.1719 – 1725 (Lord Verulam, Gorhambury). The family provenance, as well as the high quality of the execution and its fidelity to the Bank of England version, and to an uninscribed repetition in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society, are an assurance of at least studio execution.
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