Historical Portraits Picture Archive

james Butler 1st Duke of Ormonde (1610 - 1688) KG 1680c.

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

james Butler 1st Duke of Ormonde (1610 - 1688) KG, John Michael Wright
Oil on canvas
17th Century
44 x 26 1/2 inches 113 x 68 cm
Lord Burgh, Northcourt, Isle of Wight, by whom sold, London 1938
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The Duke of Ormonde was one of the most stalwart defenders of the Stuart dynasty, and is shown here displaying the rewards of over fifty years of Royalist loyalty; Ducal robes, the insignia of a Knight of the Garter, and the white stick of Lord High Steward.

Having held out against Cromwell in Ireland (as Lord Lieutenant) until the surrender of Dublin in 1647, Ormonde was one of the few Royalists who persisted in trying to raise forces to rescue the captured King Charles I at Hampton Court. Failure finally drove him into exile with Charles II in 1650, where he became one of the erstwhile King’s leading advisers. Following Charles II’s restoration in 1660 Ormonde was once more made Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, though his rule was criticised by some, most notably the Duke of Buckingham, and he was removed from the post in 1669. But Ormonde’s grandeur, power, and above all, loyalty, rendered his presence at the heart of Government indispensable, and he was again restored to the post in 1677 until retiring on grounds of age in 1684.

His record as Lord-Lieutenant is marked by a defence of Irish interests, particularly with regard to trade, and a strong enough sense of his own power to offer harsh criticism to the Stuarts, particularly James II, when (as so often) they made the mistakes that cost them either their head, or their throne. Ormonde also created the Phoenix Park in Dublin, and the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

John Michael Wright was born in London, but trained first in Scotland and then in Rome for a decade from 1642. There he worked amongst contemporaries such as Poussin and Velazquez, and records show that his own private art collection included works attributed to Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael. In 1648, he became a member of the Academy of St Luke. In 1656 he returned to London, and soon established a respected and successful studio. He was commissioned by, amongst others, Charles II and Cosimo III de Medici, and his most successful portrait is undoubtedly the iconic image of Charles II Enthroned (Royal Collection).

Wright was, however, unusual in being a successful Catholic artisan. His career in London first flourished during the Puritanical Protectorate, and again after the Great Plague (1665), and the Fire (1666), both of which were blamed on Catholics. He finally left in about 1678, and was recorded as working in Dublin by 1679. Following the succession of James II in 1685 Wright travelled once again to Italy as part of the new King’s official Embassy to the Pope.

As a result of his classical training Wright’s portraits display both a verve for colour, and the highly accomplished drawing skills too often missing from the more sombre and routine English portraiture of the period. It is noticeable that Wright, according to correspondence with Sir Walter Bagot, mentions charging an extra fee for the use of ‘extraordinary colours.’ If Sir Peter Lely was the most accomplished painter of the genre, or fashion, of later seventeenth century Britain, it is Wright whose actual likenesses have stood the test of time. When placed next to Lely’s work, for example, Wright’s more lively and realistic capturing of character reinforces Pepy’s critique that Lely’s portraits were ‘good but not like.’

This portrait of the Duke of Ormonde demonstrates two of the qualities that enunciate Wright’s work; his use of colour, and the vivid capturing of character. In this example, the intricately assured handling present in the face together with areas of pentiment around the wig signal Wright’s intervention, while the less studied passages in the drapery and costume suggest completion by a nonetheless highly competent studio assistant. Wright is known to have painted ‘cabinet-size’ portraits, for example that of Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Mrs Claypole (c. 1658 on wood, National Portrait Gallery), and that of Sir Neil O’Neill (formerly with Historical Portraits). This portrait is a reduced version of a full length now hanging at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (National Trust).
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