LONDON - Old Master Painting sales rarely feature a portrait of a subject as exuberant, eccentric, and wildly fascinating as the one of Edward Wortley Montagu by George Romney. It is one thing to have a stately likeness of some benign or dignified Duchess or a religious subject, quite another to contain within the humble canvas a larger-than-life character whose career as traveller, adventurer, scholar, polygamist and criminal, amongst others, beggars belief. Only son of Sir Edward Wortley Montagu, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and the infamous and equally eccentric Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, this Edward lived a life of extremes. If only reality shows existed then!
Having Lady Mary as mother formed Edward’s character as adventurer and intrepid traveller very early in life. So much so that no school could contain him – he ran away often, took up with unsuitable women, drank copiously, was disinherited, and in short led the kind of existence that gave new meaning to the word ‘dissolute.’ Prone to excessive indulgence with women and money, he managed to trick his way into an inheritance from his paternal grandfather and promptly embarked on extensive travels in Italy, with a short stay in Leiden where he studied for a while. After a spell in a debtor’s prison, he joined the army where he briefly distinguished himself before managing to secure a seat in Parliament and therefore immunity from creditors. Montagu later became secretary to his cousin, the Earl of Sandwich, a position which did not prevent him from further high-living and joining the Divan Club where he affected admiration for the Turks.
“he ran away often, took up with unsuitable women, drank copiously, was disinherited, and in short led the kind of existence that gave new meaning to the word ‘dissolute.’”
Three months after the birth of his son from a bigamous marriage to second wife Elizabeth Ashe, Montagu left her to go to Paris in 1751 where he became embroiled in an extortion racket, which landed him at the notorious Châtelet. However the case was overturned on appeal and Montagu was back to England and his old lifestyle of running up debts and mistresses. He did produce a magnum opus – a historical work published in 1759 – before returning to the continent and reprising the traveller’s life. As ‘The Chevalier de Montagu’ an alias he adopted while travelling through Armenia, Sinai and Jerusalem, Edward was accompanied by Caroline Dormer Feroe, the beautiful 21-year old wife of the Danish Consul in Alexandria. Together they roamed erratically to Egypt and Ottoman-held Greece, to Turkey, Palestine and Ethiopia (we think). Becoming a Muslim and adopting local garb added to his mystique, and even the Sultan himself raised no objection to Montagu’s pretence that he was his illegitimate son. He lived out his days in grand Oriental style, looking very much as he is portrayed in this fine likeness by Romney.
Art historians have admired the fusion of sixteenth-century Venetian modelling and colour with the eighteenth century English grand manner style that is so expertly typified in this work. I can only marvel at the spiritedness and sheer exuberance of its subject.