Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas Noel, MFH (c.1703 - 1788) 

John Vanderbank (1694-1739)

Portrait of Thomas Noel, MFH (c.1703 - 1788), John Vanderbank
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 3/8 x 25 inches, 76 x 63.5cm
 
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This portrait is an extremely rare depiction of an eighteenth century huntsman. The sitter, Thomas Noel, was one of the longest serving Master of Foxhounds in the history of hunting, and effectively founded the Cottesmore hunt, one of England’s oldest packs. He was Master from 1732 until his death in 1788. This portrait can be attributed by its distinctive style and technique to John Vanderbank, who is thought to have painted other members of the Noel family. The picture is clearly designed to celebrate the sitter’s hunting prowess, for his velvet coat is pulled open to reveal a distinctively cut hunting jacket beneath.

The Cottesmore hunt, based in Rutland, can trace its origins to the arrival in 1666 of Henry, Viscount Lowther, who was keen to hunt the area with his own pack. The Lowther’s later sold the pack to the Earls of Gainsborough, for whom Thomas Noel, a member of that family, initially acted as agent in running the large estates in Exton Park, Rutland. Noel was the son of the Hon. John Noel, a younger brother of Edward, 1st Earl of Gainsborough. In the 1750s ‘Tom’ Noel, as he was known, assumed a central position in the management of both the hunt and the Exton estates due to his marriage to Elizabeth Chapman (d.1771), the widow of the 4th Earl of Gainsborough. Noel’s stepson, Baptist, the 5th Earl, was then a minor of just eleven years old, and Noel acted as head of the family until the young peer reached his majority.

Noel also filled the family seat at the House of Commons, which the Earls of Gainsborough controlled with a vice-like grip from 1727 until 1883. He was elected, usually unopposed, as MP for Rutland from 1728-41, and again from1753-88. On his death he was described in the Gentleman’s Magazine as the ‘father of the House of Commons’. However, Noel rarely attended Parliament. In 1779 he was described in the ‘Public Ledger’ as “a very old member of parliament, and attends but very seldom.” He apparently did not speak in the Commons once from 1754 until his death over thirty years later. Though nominally a Tory, he was classed as “an independent man, and inclined to the minority”. He voted, for example, in support of the libertarian, John Wilkes.

Noel’s main occupation, of course, was hunting, about which he was passionate. He was celebrated in verse as “Tom Noel, that huntsman so stout”, and under his stewardship the Cottesmore, then known as “Old Noel’s Hounds”, flourished into one of England’s best known packs. In 1732 he wrote a book on the art of breeding foxhounds, and the Cottesmore still today enjoys a reputation for breeding the best hounds. His favourite hound was apparently a stallion called ‘Tipler’. Noel’s hunting diary, which still survives, suggests that he liked to hunt all year round, and such was his activity that in 1776 Hugo Meynell, then the Master of the Quorn and known to history the ‘Father of Foxhunting’, was forced to agree with Noel certain boundaries and limits between the two hunts around the area of Melton Mowbray, the town today considered the capital of hunting. Noel continued to hunt until the day he died. One account recalls his arrival home after a day’s hunting, when he was aged seventy; “Tom Noel returned from hunting, and by way of diverting us came into the dining-room in his nasty red foxy Exton coat all over dirt. Soon after he eat his dinner which was stewed duck, and Mama ordered tea and coffee…”


References;

The History of Parliament, ‘The House of Commons 1754-90’, Namier & Brooke, Vol.III (London 1964).
Lady Norah Bentinck, ‘My Wanderings and Memories’ (London 1924)
Charles Simpson, ‘Leicestershire and its Hunts’ (London 1926)

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