Portraits, patrons, and political networks in late Stuart and early Georgian England

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Amy Lim of St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. On 8 March 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Amy will be discussing her research on portraits, patrons, and political networks in late Stuart and early Georgian England. Ahead of the session, read about Amy’s research in this short paper. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Across the length and breadth of England, the walls of country houses are thick with portraits, like so much ancestral wallpaper. Some of these are the salient figures in the dynasties who occupied the houses: patriarchs in their court or parliamentary robes, their languidly elegant wives, heirs leaning insouciantly against a classical sculpture on their Grand Tour. But among them are many unfamiliar faces. Who are these people, and why are they here? What is their connection to the family?

Often of lesser art-historical interest, these subsidiary portraits are nevertheless some of the most useful to the historian. For where portraits have stayed together in a collection, they can form an invaluable record of the original owner’s connections. The exchange and display of portraits was central to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century kinship, friendship and political networks.

Probably Dorothy, Viscountess Townshend
studio of Charles Jervas
oil on canvas, circa 1715 CC NPG

Friendship in the early modern period was not simply a matter of spending time with like-minded people. It was principally considered to be instrumental, a relationship formed for mutual benefit. That did not necessarily exclude affection and enjoyment, but friendship was widely understood to be a social duty, based on utility. It was consolidated through gift exchange, which created a cycle of reciprocity and mutual obligation.

In elite circles, portraits were commonly given and received among friends (the expense placed it beyond the reach of less wealthy groups). Besides being gifts in themselves, these portraits also created a visible record of the friendship they symbolised. Such portraits would typically be hung in the public rooms of a house, where visitors would observe the ancestral and contemporary alliances that surrounded their host. Kate Retford has described such displays as ‘a visual map of aristocratic connections’.

Nor was friendship a ‘private’ activity: quite the opposite. There was little or no division between friends, family, politics and business. Marriages were contracted to enhance social and political connections, and private ties of kinship facilitated public co-operation and advancement. Portraits were often therefore integral to political networks. They helped to strengthen the ties that bound members together, and made a visual statement of their associates and affiliations.

Although the identity of the sitter was usually more important than the painting’s artistic merit, the choice of artist was often closely linked to those same networks. Members of a political and/or kinship circle often patronised the same artist. In the 1690s, the Swedish portrait painter Michael Dahl was frequently patronised by a circle of Whig aristocrats and supporters of Prince George of Denmark.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne
attributed to Charles Jervas CC NPG

Another example is the patronage of portrait painter Charles Jervas by the Walpole, Townshend and Pelham families, the most prominent political grouping of the 1720s. The three families were connected by marriage through the linchpin of Charles, second Viscount Townshend (1674-1738).

His first wife, Elizabeth (1681-1711), was the sister of Thomas Pelham Holles, first duke of Newcastle (1693-1768) and Henry Pelham (1694-1754). Following her death in 1711 he married Dorothy (1686-1726), sister of his Norfolk neighbour, Robert Walpole (1676-1745). With Walpole at the Treasury, Townshend Secretary of State for the north and Newcastle holding the same office for the south, they dominated the cabinet. This political alliance gradually deteriorated until May 1730 when Walpole and Newcastle effectively forced Townshend into retirement. Townshend and Walpole never spoke again.

It was not a coincidence that three families marked the decade of their political ascendency with the commission and exchange of a great many portraits. Many were painted by Jervas, who owed his appointment as Principal Painter to the King to the combined efforts of Townshend, Walpole and Newcastle. Townshend was with George I in Hanover when Sir Godfrey Kneller, his predecessor in the post, died in October 1723, but it was Newcastle who was the driving force behind the appointment. Walpole wrote to Townshend

The duke of Newcastle is at Claremont and desires me to give you his thanks for all your letters and beggs you will not forgett Jervas the painter. He has it much at heart to be dispatch’d

Townshend’s lobbying was successful, and Jervas was duly appointed.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend
attributed to Charles Jervas CC NPG

The fortunate survival of a bill presented by Jervas to Townshend in 1733 shows us Townshend’s extensive use of portraits to maintain and display his networks. Among others, Townshend presented his own portrait to Newcastle, Henry Pelham and Horace Walpole (Robert’s brother). Others were commissioned for display at his country house, Raynham Hall, which he was in the process of renovating. Following his investiture as a knight of the Garter on 9 July 1724, he exchanged full-length portraits in Garter robes with his cabinet colleague Richard Lumley, second earl of Scarbrough (1686-1740), who was invested on the same day.

Townshend also dispatched a copy of his Garter portrait to the Congress of Soissons (1728-9) under the care of his Plenipotentiary, Stephen Poyntz (1685-1750), where it stood in for Townshend’s person at the negotiations. Poyntz complained about the ‘Vast Expence we have been at in order to make the same Appearance here as the Ministers of other Powers.’ It was important to put on a good show, and although Townshend only sent the Congress a copy of his portrait rather than an original (assuming they wouldn’t notice the difference in quality), he splashed out the large sum of fourteen pounds on a ‘rich gold frame’.

Portraits were thus at the heart of political, familial and cultural networks. They formed a visual address book on the walls of town and country houses, while the very act of exchanging portraits also created and reinforced bonds of instrumental friendship. Visitors to country houses today may wonder why these portraits are there, but contemporaries would have known exactly who they were and what they signified. Reading the connections implicit in a portrait collection can help us to reconstruct and appreciate the political and social alliances that underpinned seventeenth- and eighteenth-century society.


Amy will be discussing her research on 8 March 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Amy, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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