Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of an officer of 50th Foot, identified as Major Sir Alexander Hope 4th Bt. (1728 - 1794) 1765 - 1770c.

Joseph Wright of Derby ARA 1734 - 1797

Portrait of an officer of 50th Foot, identified as Major Sir Alexander Hope 4th Bt. (1728 - 1794), Joseph Wright of Derby ARA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
49 1/4 x 39 inches 125 x 99 cm
Estate of William G Warden (label on the reverse) Private collection, Philadelphia, since the I 920s
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This dashing portrait dates from circa 1765-70, when Wright painted a number of military men, the result of a demand for commemorative portraits after the British successes in the Seven Years’ War and India. In the mid-i 760s, as Benedict Nicolson has commented, Wright ‘first discerned his power, his originality and a sense of direction’; this was ‘the very moment that he attained perfection as a portrait painter’ (Joseph Wright of Derbji, 2 vols, London 1968; voi. I, p.3). This portrait shows an easy dignity of pose, a beautiful modelling of light on flesh which brings the face alive, and a consummate command of light on drapery (not for nothing had Wright spent two long periods in the studio of Thomas Hudson, the showiest London society painter of the mid eighteenth century). Wright gives his soldier a sense of drama by setting him before billowing black clouds with a camp in the distance, but this background is more naturalistically observed and less stagey than those in the portraits of Reynolds. The play of light on the silver lace, red woollen coat, cream waistcoat and the delicate cuffs of the shirt is extremely subtle, rflecting Wright’s delight in capturing reality in paint.

The sitter is an officer of the 50th Foot, identified as Major Sir Alexander Hope (1728-1794), 4th Bt: of Kerse, near Fallkirk, who came from a distinguished Scottish family which also included the Amsterdam-based banking family. Hope joined the army as an Ensign in 1744, became Lieutenant in the 18th Foot in 1747 and Captain in the 52nd Foot in 1756. That year the 52nd became the 50th Foot when the original 50th and 51st were disbanded. He was promoted to Major in 1769 and retired in 1772. Hope inherited the Baronetcy from his father in 1749 and sold the estate to the family of Dundas. When he died in 1794 the Baronetcy became extinct.

If Wright’s sitter is indeed Sir Alexander Hope, as his social and army status and age (late thirties- early forties between 1765 and 1770) seem to suggest, the painting was perhaps commissioned to celebrate his promotion to Major in 1770. The 50th were stationed in Ireland, but Wright worked in Liverpool from the end of 1768 to the autumn of 1771 and Hope may have sat to him when he returned to England via this city. His name does not appear in Wright’s Account Book (manuscript in the National Portrait Gallery, London) but this is known to be incomplete.
The elegant, commanding pose of this portrait is derived from Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of the Royal Navy Captain Sir John Lockhart-Ross, executed 1761-2 (see David Mannings, Sir Joshua Rejinolds:A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2 vols, New Haven and London 2000, vol. I, p.310, no.1140; vol. II, fig. 544). Wright may have seen the original portrait, or known it through James McArdell’s mezzotint (though Mannings suggests that this was not published until 1821). A similar pose of arm and tilt of head is used in Wright’s portrait of Captain Robert Shore Mimes, circa 1771-2 (Mrs Lawrence Copley Thaw Collection; Nicolson op. cit., vol. I, p.213, no.107; vol. II, pl.ll4). In the dramatic use of light, stormy background and sheer subtlety in the painting of details of military dress, Wright’s fine portrait of An officer of the 50th Foot can be compared to his half-length portrait of Sir George Cooke, Bt., circa 1770-1 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Nicolson vol. I, p.19l, no.44; vol. II, p1.86).
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