This psychologically charged portrait was painted in 1829, at the height of Wellington’s political power, during his tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Left unfinished in Lawrence’s studio when the artist died in 1830, it was commissioned by Sarah Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1785-1867), who refused to have it finished by an assistant. In so doing she thus preserved the lively spontaneity and raw energy of the original sitting, as well as the integrity of the master’s ad vivum work. Lawrence painted Wellington a total of eight times between 1814 and 1830, of which this was the last. Of all these portraits, however, the present painting stands out for its intimacy, spirited insight and emotional power. In a rapidly applied series of brushstrokes Lawrence has captured the distinctive lean features, long nose, protruding jaw and penetrating blue eyes that struck awe into a succession of subordinates, be they military and political, and inspired the respect and esteem of a nation, both soldier and civilian.
Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who commissioned this picture, was one of Wellington's strongest, and most influential supporters (fig. 1). The eldest of three daughters of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland (1759-1841), and his wife Sarah Anne (1764-1793), daughter and sole heir of Robert Child of Osterley Park, she was a great political hostess and society figure. By the terms of her grandfather’s will Lady Jersey was heir to the great Child’s Bank fortune, which bought her an estimated annual income of £60,000. In May 1804 she married George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey (1773-1859), bringing with her not only her vast fortune, but the Robert Adam designed Osterley Park in Middlesex, built by her grandfather, as well. Villiers was the son of George, 4th Earl of Jersey and his wife, France Villiers, one of the more notorious mistresses of George IV when Prince of Wales. He succeeded to the earldom one year after his marriage, and took on the additional surname of Child in 1812. A keen sportsman, described by Nimrod as ‘not only one of the hardest, boldest and most judicious, but perhaps the most elegant rider to hounds the world ever saw',2 the 5th Earl had none of the flamboyance of his wife, but was a prominent figure among the Turf. His stud at the family seat, Middleton Park, in Oxfordshire (fig. 2), produced a number of distinguished racehorses, which the Earl trained himself, including Middleton, Mameluke and Bay Middleton, all of which won the Derby. Though he played no active role in politics he served as Lord Chamberlain to William IV in the Wellington and Peel ministries and Master of the Horse to Queen Victoria on two occasions.
His wife, by contrast, was one of the most prominent political hostesses of her generation, and entertained extensively at 38 Berkeley Square in London, as well as both at Osterley and Middleton. Together with her great rivals Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper (1787-1869), and Dorothea, Princess Lieven (1785-1867), wife of the Russian Ambassador, she was one of the Lady Patronesses of the exclusive Almack’s Club, a position which enabled her to wield huge social influence. Known as a great maitresse-femme by contemporaries, partly on account of the great fortune she had inherited at a relatively young age, which had a marked impact on her character, Lady Jersey was also prone to excessive romanticism, and had a habit of self-dramatization. Beautiful, witty and charming, her affairs, though discreet, were said to be numerous. When asked why he had never fought a duel to preserve his wife’s reputation, Lord Jersey is said to have commented drily that it would require him to fight every man in London.
The most profound channel for her energies, however, was in politics, and like many women of her generation she did not hesitate to use her substantial influence to promote her views. Initially an important Whig, by the 1820s Lady Jersey had aligned herself with the Tories, and Wellington and Peel became her great heroes. Indeed the Countess was connected to Wellington through marriage for her brother, the Earl of Westmorland, was married to his niece, Priscilla Wellesley-Pole (1793-1879), and she fancied herself as the Duke’s confidant, even making him godfather to her daughter, Lady Clementina. Known among the ton by her nickname ‘Silence’, on account of her excessive loquacity, Lady Jersey lobbied hard on the Duke’s behalf. On hearing that Wellington had fallen from power in 1830 she burst into tears in public and is said to have ‘moved heaven and earth’3 against the Reform Act of 1832. Known more for her energy than her intellect, it was her ‘great zest and gaiety’, in the words of diarist Henry Greville, which gave Lady Jersey a ‘power of attracting remarkable men, many of whom I have seen listen with the greatest complacency to what they would have considered to be egregious nonsense had it emanated from less charming lips’.4 Immortalised by Disraeli as Zenobia, in his novel Endymion, and satirized by Caroline Lamb (for which Lady Jersey had her barred from Almack's; the ultimate social humiliation), there was more to Lady Jersey than merely the society hostess. Unusually for a woman of her generation, and somewhat incongruously, she maintained an active role as the owner and senior partner of Child's Bank. Refusing to delegate her responsibilities to her husband or other men, she kept a desk at the office, which she attended regularly, and paid a great deal of attention to the management of the Jersey estates and the welfare of their tenants.
The great demand for portraits by Lawrence, who was President of the Royal Academy for ten years, was such that many paintings were left unfinished in his studio when he died. A great number were finished by his studio assistants after his death, however the most engaging are those which remained in the condition in which he left them, of which this is certainly one of the finest.
1. N. Gash. 'Wellesley, Arthur, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004;
2. K. D. Reynolds, 'Villiers, Sarah Sophia Child, Countess of Jersey (1785-1867)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004;
3. A. Fraser, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, London 2013, p. 91;
4. Diary of Henry Greville, 4.309-10, 4 February 1867.
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