Thomas Roberts was probably the most talented Irish landscape artist of the eighteenth century, and the present work shows him to have been an equally talented portraitist and horse painter.
Roberts trained as an artist at the Dublin Society's School under James Mannin, and was later apprenticed to George Mullins, a well respected Irish landscape artist. He exhibited his first work at the Society of Artists in Ireland in 1766 at the age of only eighteen. He seems to have achieved instant success and continued to exhibit his paintings there until 1777. He suffered from tuberculosis, and in 1776 he travelled to Bath for a period of recuperation. Over the course of this visit, according to John Warren, his colour changed "from the most frightful cadaverous...[to] as fresh and good as his complexion was us'd to admit of" (Letter from John Warren to Andrew Caldwell, 22nd July 1776). Neverthless, the following year he died of his tuberculosis, and a marvellous artistic career was cut short.
Painted in 1772 the present painting is the only horse portrait which Roberts seems to have exhibited. It is an intimate portrait of bold Sir William, a spirited pony belonging to Gerald Fitzgerald, the seventh son of James, 1st Duke of Leinster, who must have commissioned this portrait (fig.1) and his wife, Emilia Mary, daughter of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond. Born in 1766 Gerald was six years old when this work was painted. He later served in the Royal Navy and was tragically lost at sea at the age of only twenty-two. The pony is held by a proud looking East Indian servant, and is an image of a black man of almost unique glamour in the eighteenth century. He wears richly coloured robes trimmed with ermine and golden slippers, and his costume recalls the exoticism of the East.
An interest in orientalism and 'otherness' was prominent in the minds of the British public towards the end of the eighteenth century. The influence of trade routes to India and British colonisation in America had allowed portraiture of black and oriental men to become more commonplace. Reynolds for example had painted a portrait of Scyacust Ukah in 1762 (Mannings cat. no.1594). Skyacust Ukah was a Cherokee Chief who had travelled to England as part of a delegation in 1762. He was received in England with grace but also an uninhibited fascination. This interest in 'otherness' perhaps culminated in the glamorous portrait of Omai painted by Reynolds a few years later in 1776.
There can be little doubt, however, that in 1772 portraits of black servants in such finery were almost unheard of. Reynolds painted two portraits of a black servant, possibly his own, circa 1770 (Mannings cat.nos. 2002 and 2003), but their dress cannot match the ermine lined costume of the servant in the present work, and until the latter part of the eighteenth century black men were usually portrayed as the negro pages who attended on their masters and mistresses.
It is an acknowledgement of the sitter's obvious privilege and glamour which has led various scholars to give him an identity. He has often been identified as Tony Small, the black American who saved Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the Duke of Leinster's fifth son, from the battlefield of Eutaw Springs during the American War of Independence in September 1781. Lord Fitzgerald was so grateful that he took him into his service and Tony Small remained with him thereafter. This would certainly make for a coherent narrative, and would explain why the sitter has been granted so much prominence in the portrait. However, it was Michael Wynne who identified the present painting as the work which was in the Carton Collection, and which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in Ireland in 1772. The chronology of this means that disappointingly the sitter cannot be identified as Tony Small, since he was not to appear on the battlefield of Eutaw Springs for another decade.
The Dukes of Leinster were important patrons of Roberts. A few years after the present work was exhibited he painted a magnificent set of four views of Carton Park, County Kildare, for the second Duke. Few works, however, can match the mix of swagger and intimacy which the present work captures.
We are grateful to Colette Jordan for her help with this catalogue note.
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