Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of John, Lord Glenorchy, Heir of the Earl of Breadalbane

Famed for their likeness, this portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of John, Lord Glenorchy, the heir of the Earl of Breadalbane featured in our May 2021 auction of the Property of the Earls of Breadalbane & Holland, Taymouth Castle.

Gainsborough’s portraits were famed for their likeness and in this particular portrait John, Lord Glenorchy, the heir of the Earl of Breadalbane, is shown as a slight, sickly figure. His elder brother, George, had died at the age of twelve in 1744 and tragically, in November 1771, Breadalbane’s second son, John, was to predecease him at the age of 33. In September 1761 John had married Wilhelmina Maxwell who later in life was to establish a number of dissenting chapels in Scotland and in south-west England.




According to the Bath newspapers Lord and Lady Glenorchy travelled to Bath—no doubt to take the waters—in April 1762 and five months later Lord Glenorchy returned to the City without his wife. It must have been at the time of this second visit that Breadalbane commissioned Gainsborough to paint his son’s portrait. According to the Glenorchys’ friend Lord Royston, who was to sit to Gainsborough in May, the couple arrived in Bath on 9 April 1763, no doubt anxious to see the completed portrait. Breadalbane’s payment of £21.7s is recorded in a receipt dated 13 April 1763. It was customary for artists to be paid half the fee when the portrait was commissioned and the final payment was made once the portrait was finished. The receipt accords with the artist’s standard charge of £42 for a half-length portrait and the additional charge of 7s covered the cost of a packing case. Curiously, at the time Lord Glenorchy was sitting to Gainsborough in Bath, in London his wife was sitting for a pendant portrait by the Scottish painter and pastellist Katherine Read. A receipt for this canvas dated 22 April 1763 records the larger payment of £24.4s for the portrait which is presently lent to Dundee Museum and Art Gallery. There are very few instances of pendant portraits being commissioned from different artists. The portrait presently offered in our forthcoming auction was not the Glenorchys only connection with Gainsborough. In 1766, again for health reasons, Lady Glenorchy returned to Bath and sat to Gainsborough for a head-and-shoulders portrait in which she wears an elaborate brocaded green silk robe à la française. This portrait is now in a British private collection. No doubt seeking warmer climes again to improve their fragile health, later that year the couple travelled to the Continent arriving in Rome in November where they stayed until the summer of 1767.




From June 1760 Gainsborough rented a house belonging to the Duke of Kingston that faced the west end of Bath Abbey. This prime location served him well and he quickly became an established part of the community. His ‘shew’ room, filled with portraits both completed and half finished, became one of the sights of the city; an added attraction for the ever-changing stream of tourists. Over the next three years Gainsborough received so many commissions that he suffered a serious breakdown in his health during the autumn of 1763 and his condition was considered grave enough for his death to be announced in the local newspapers. He had worked extraordinarily hard during the previous three years, developing his style from the provincial charm of his Suffolk portraits and by combining his innate draughtsmanship and honing his perfect colour harmonies he achieved his ambition to become an artist of national significance. His popularity grew exponentially and his appointments book, that must have included dates for Glenorchy’s and Royston’s sittings, was overflowing.




Glenorchy wears clothes that are the height of fashion. His aile-de-pigeon bag-wig is set off by a fine worsted green suit with gold-covered buttons and gold-thread embroidery worked in a scroll design along the garment edges that is repeated on the cuffs and pocket flaps. The green suit is offset by a generous swag of red drapery in the background and, on the right, the appropriate grandeur of the sitter’s surroundings is suggested by a large column base. The portrait was recently cleaned to great effect and it shows the extraordinary dexterity in the artist’s handling of paint. Details such as the lace cuffs and the gloved right hand perfectly represent the comparative textures of linen and kidskin and demonstrate a relaxed fluency and confidence that is rare in any artist’s work. Compositionally the portrait is very close to another recently discovered portrait of James Edward Colleton (Belsey 199). With subtleties of stance and expression Gainsborough shows the divergent characters of the two sitters. Colleton, standing in a domestic interior, arrogantly confronts the beholder; his right arm held akimbo suggests the nervous irritation of being disturbed from reading a book. Glenorchy is more relaxed. His right hand is tucked into his waistcoat pocket and his gloved left hand rests on the hilt of a ceremonial sword. In contrast he has an expression of unruffled aristocratic sensibility.


We are grateful to Hugh Belsey for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot and his extensive background notes.



Auction Information




Tuesday, 18 May 2021


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