Last portrait of Duke of Wellington acquired following £1.3m public appeal

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Last portrait of Duke of Wellington acquired following £1.3m public appeal
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery has acquired Sir Thomas Lawrence’s unfinished final portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, following a successful public fund-raising appeal, it was announced today, 6 April 2017.

Offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £1.3 million, the portrait’s fund-raising appeal has just been completed with a grant of £200,000 from the G and K Boyes Charitable Trust and £180,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, having been kick started by a donation of £350,000 from Art Fund in September 2016. This generous support was in addition to the Gallery’s own funds, and donations from more than 500 supporters through a public appeal. Donations were received from throughout the UK and overseas.

The painting is an important acquisition for the Gallery which has no other significant portrait of the Duke of Wellington in its Collection, an omission of one of the most iconic and popular figures in British history. The Gallery has been seeking to secure such a portrait since it opened in 1856. This work by the leading artist of his age Sir Thomas Lawrence who made eight portraits of Wellington and was the Duke’s definitive image maker, is one of only two world-class portraits of Wellington ever likely to come up for sale.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘We are delighted to have acquired this remarkable painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence which will now be on permanent display and free for over two million visitors to enjoy each year. We have been looking for a suitable depiction of the Duke of Wellington since our founding in 1856 so we are hugely grateful to Art Fund, the G and K Boyes Charitable Trust, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and all our visitors and supporters, who have given donations to help us acquire for the nation this magnificent portrait.’

Dr Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director, says: ‘Congratulations to the National Portrait Gallery for running such a successful appeal, which our trustees were delighted to support. The Gallery is without doubt the ideal home for this compelling and important portrait.’

Dr Lucy Peltz, Senior Curator, 18th Century Portraits and Head of Collections Displays (Tudor to Regency), National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘Finally, after searching for more than 150 years, the National Portrait Gallery has been able to acquire a portrait that compares to the importance and reputation of the sitter it represents. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s final portrait of the Duke of Wellington is an eloquent and powerful image of one of the most iconic and influential men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’

Dan Snow, historian, broadcaster and co-author of The Battle of Waterloo Experience, says: ‘Wellington is a titanic figure in British history. Our only Field Marshal Prime Minister, a man of genius on and off the battlefield. This arresting portrait must sit in the national collection, and now following an outpouring of generosity, it will do. The artist has captured the Duke’s legendary demeanour. Among his many contributions to British life he forged the masculine culture of unbending froideur in the face of adversity. It is as special as a work of art as it is as a primary source.’

Started in 1829, the year Wellington was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and in which he fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea over the issue of Catholic emancipation, the unfinished portrait shows him in civilian dress with only his black collar and white stock visible. It was commissioned at the height of Wellington’s political career when he was Prime Minister.

At the time he was closely involved in the legislation around Catholic emancipation and deeply opposed to the reform of the House of Commons. Earlier in the decade he had been involved in the delicate negotiations between the Prince Regent and the Prince’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline. He also represented British interests at the Congress of Verona in 1822, one of a series of conferences on European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars.

The large oil-on-canvas portrait was commissioned a year after Wellington had become Tory Prime Minister by Sarah, Countess of Jersey, a leading political hostess and supporter of the Tories in the 1820s. Initially dedicating her social gatherings to the cause of the Whig party, in the late 1820s Lady Jersey switched her allegiance to the Tories, with Wellington becoming one of her favourites. She believed herself to be one of his confidantes, but he mistrusted her ability to keep a secret: earlier in life her loquacity had earned her the nickname “Silence.”

At Lawrence’s death in 1830 the portrait remained unfinished. But unlike many other clients, Lady Jersey refused to have it finished by a studio assistant. On hearing that the Duke of Wellington had fallen from power in 1830, Lady Jersey burst into tears in public. She reportedly ‘moved heaven and earth’ against the Reform Act 1832 which Wellington had also opposed.

The painting was lent to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions staged in 2015 to mark the bicentenary year of the Battle of Waterloo. Prior to its loan to the Gallery from a private collection for a short period of display just before the exhibition opened, the portrait, which is in excellent condition, had not been on public view for any significant period since it was painted.

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