Lot 151
  • 151

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS P.R.A. | Portrait of Henry Vansittart (1732-1770), Governor of Bengal

60,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Joshua Reynolds
  • Portrait of Henry Vansittart (1732-1770), Governor of Bengal
  • half-length, wearing blue, in a feigned oval oil on canvas
  • 30 by 25in.


By family descent from the sitter to Robert Arnold Vansittart (1851-1928), Foots Cray Place, Kent;
thence by descent to his son, Robert Gilbert, 1st Baron Vansittart (1881-1957), Denham Place;
anonymous sale ('The Property of a Deceased Estate'), London, Christie's, 22 November 1985, lot 122, where acquired;
thence by descent


A. Graves and W.V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, London 1899, vol. III, p. 1000;
Sir W. Armstrong, Sir Joshua Reynolds, London 1900, p. 234;
D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A complete catalogue of his paintings, New Haven and London 2000, text vol., p. 453, cat. no. 1789, reproduced plates vol., fig. 85. ENGRAVED
S.W. Reynolds, 1822.


The canvas is lined, the paint surface is slightly dirty and the varnish is discoloured and uneven. The impasto paintwork in the sitter’s cravat, buttons of his coat, and in parts of his face, remains largely intact. Inspection under ultraviolet light is impeded by the old and opaque varnish. While no major damages are visible, there appear to be some old fine lines of restoration in the sitter’s face but the painting seems to be in overall good condition and will respond well to cleaning.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

It is not surprising that Henry Vansittart’s distinguished career in India began at an early age. His grandfather Peter van Sittart had been a director of the East India Company, and his father Arthur was a prominent and successful trader with close involvement with the company. It was in 1745, when aged only thirteen, that Henry was sent out to Fort St David, Madras, as writer to the East India Company. Very soon he saw action and was involved in the defense of the fort against an attack by French forces. Whilst there he also met his near contemporary Robert Clive, with whom he was to have a close if uneasy relationship. He prospered in India, returning to England in 1751 with a considerable fortune. Vansittart's stay in England was brief, and during the two years before his return to India he appears to have lost much of his money. He is said to have joined Sir Francis Dashwood’s notorious Monks of Medmenham, a club whose members indulged in orgies and wild parties. Vansittart is said to have brought back a baboon from India which he dressed up as a chaplain and introduced to the club.

He returned to Madras in 1753 and the next year married Emilia, daughter of Nicholas Morse, Governor of Madras. Vansittart’s great skills as negotiator led to his rapid advancement, and by 1757 he had become a senior merchant and a member of the council which advised the governor. War had broken out with the French and Vansittart was appointed acting governor. At Clive’s insistence, Vansittart was appointed Governor of Bengal where his skills as negotiator were needed to deal with Mir Jafar, nawab of Bengal, and Mir Kasim his son-in-law. Vansittart was instrumental in the installation of Mir Kasim as the new nawab, a move which greatly benefitted the East India Company. However, disagreements about the misuse of trade permits and the imposition of duties led ultimately to the outbreak of war in 1753. Mir Kasim was defeated in the important battle of Buxar in October 1764 which consolidated the company’s control of large areas of Bengal. Despite this success Vansittart was worn out by the continual intrigues in Calcutta and by his failure to avoid the war, and returned to England.

Vansittart returned a rich man and purchased Foxley Manor, an estate at Bray near Windsor. In 1768 he became MP for Reading. An unexpected financial crisis wiped out much of his fortune and in September 1769 he set off back to India as one the company’s three commissioners. The hope was that he could recoup his fortune back in India but his boat Aurora was lost at sea.

Vansittart was painted twice by Reynolds in 1753 during his first period back from India. Both portraits belonged to descendants, the first is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. On his final return to England he was again painted by Reynolds with sittings in 1767 and 1768. Both portraits, one of him in uniform and one in civilian dress are in private collections. The artist’s pocket books for 1753 do not survive and Professor Mannings has suggested that the two earlier portraits might have been paid for on the sitter’s final return from India in 1767.

The present portrait was engraved in 1822 by S.W. Reynolds.