This painting is one of three almost identical portrait of the Prince of Wales commissioned from Gainsborough in 1781, to give away to his closest friends. It is the earliest portrait type of the Prince by Gainsborough and clearly met with His Royal Highness’s approval, as he went on to commission two landscapes and over a dozen more portraits from the artist over the next seven years. This picture was intended for the prince’s younger and favourite brother, Prince Frederick Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827), who was then attending military academy in Hanover, Germany, and arrived with him before 20 December 1782. The other two versions were given to Major Gerald Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, the Prince’s equerry (now in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba), and Major-General William John Kerr, 5th Marquess of Lothian (now in the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas). In all three the Prince shown in a green coat with high collar and elaborate gold frogging à la huzzar, a powdered wig with side curls, the star and sash of the order of the Garter and a fine lace jabot pinned with a circular diamond set brooch at the throat. A well known dandy and close friend of the famous Beau Brummell, the Prince took great care over his appearance and, as Colonel of the 10th or Prince of Wales’s own Light Dragoons, personally designed and paid for exotic uniforms for all the men of the regiment.
As the recent exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in London spectacularly demonstrates, the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, was a great patron of the arts. Arguably the most magnificent of British monarchs, he was the greatest royal collector and supporter of artists since King Charles I. As heir to the throne, Regent and then King, he purchased paintings, metalwork, textiles, furniture, watercolours, books and ceramics in vast numbers and decorated his palaces with sumptuous ornamentation. He employed leading architects, such as John Nash and Henry Holland, for grand building projects, particularly at Carlton House in London and places like the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, collected some of the most important Old Masters in the Royal Collection, particularly works of the Dutch and Flemish schools, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Cuyp and Jan Steen; and was an avid patron of contemporary British artists, commissioning large numbers of paintings from the likes of George Stubbs, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and Gainsborough.
On March 1 1782 the Prince wrote to his brother, the Duke of York, in Hanover, saying ‘I have had painted for you a picture ye same as one I have given Gerrard [Major Gerald Lake]; it is a half length painted by Gainsborough & reckoned remarkably like by every[one], I wish to know wh. you think will be ye best way to send it over, as I will not have it sent till I receive yr. answer .. Adieu, my dearest & best of brothers; may Heaven shower down its choicest blessings upon you & hasten the moment of our meeting again ..’. Seven months later, on 15 October, he wrote again to his brother, saying ‘I intend sending you among other things by ye next messenger a portrait of me painted by Gainsborough & reckoned by everybody to be a remarkable strong likeness. He is to pack it up himself. It will be rol’d up & sent in a tin case. You will therefore make yr. servants take care how they unpack it’. On 20 December his brother replied from Hanover: ‘I have a thousand thanks to return you for the picture which I think exceedingly like ..’.
A soldier by profession, Prince Frederick, Duke of York, had been gazetted into the Army at the age of just seventeen. From 1781 to 1787 he lived in Hanover, together with his younger brothers Prince Edward, Prince Ernest, Prince Augustus and Prince Adolphus, serving as Colonel of the 2nd Horse Grenadier Guards (now the 2nd Life Guards) from 1782 and Colonel of the Coldstream Guards from 1784. He was appointed to high command at the age of just 30 and led British forces during the War of the First Coalition against the armies of Revolutionary France. Later, as Commander-in-Chief during the Napoleonic Wars, he oversaw the re-organization of the British Army, establishing vital structural, administrative and recruiting reforms for which he is credited with having done ‘more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history’. In 1791 Frederick married Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of King Frederick William II of Prussia. The marriage was not a happy one, however, and produced no children.
When the Duke of York died at the age of 64 in 1827 his financial affairs were left in a state of severe chaos, with debts totalling somewhere between £200,000 and £500,000. In order to try and satisfy these enormous debts the majority of his possessions were sold, with his executors even taking the unprecedented decision to sell a portion of his collection at public auction. The Duke’s collections of furniture, silver and arms and armour were put up for sale at Christie’s in March 1827; other items would have been sold off more discreetly to raise funds to pay off his debts, or transferred to member of the Royal Family.
The precise fate of this painting is at present unclear. However, by the time it appeared at Christie’s in James Whatman’s posthumous sale in 1887 the canvas had been misidentified as a portrait of Prince Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland (1745-1790), the fourth son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and the real sitter’s uncle. This has remained the preferred identification in the saleroom ever since, until its identity and author was confirmed by Hugh Belsey in his catalogue raisonné of Gainsborough’s portraits, published in 2019.
Since the publication of Belsey’s catalogue this picture has been cleaned and returned to the original format that was intended by the artist for all three of the 1781 portraits. Painted in feigned ovals, the three portraits would originally have been presented in a gilded oval slip. However, in the 1930s when the Havana portrait was on the New York art market its composition was expanded into a rectangular format by extending the arms over the lower spandrels and filling in the top corners of the canvas with an extension of the background. In the case of the present work and the painting now in Austin, Texas, the oval format was retained, but the bare canvas spandrels were covered with a dull brown paint. This has been removed in the present work and the gilded slip reinstated. As such it is the only one of the three portraits that is presented as the artist originally intended.
All three portraits are listed in a document in The National Archives at Kew, which was drawn up in 1793 as a consequence of the Prince of Wales’s own mounting debts. This portrait is described in the list as ‘A Head of His R[oyal]:H[ighness] s… sent abroad’ [31 10s]. Thirty guineas was Gainsborough’s standard fee for a head and shoulders portrait in the early 1780s, though by the time this list was drawn up the artist had been dead for five years. Gainsborough’s widow calculated that the artist’s estate was owed the substantial sum of £1,228-10s by the Prince for thirteen paintings and one copy. The commission reviewing the Prince’s debts finally concluded that £146-10s was to be paid to the artist’s executors on 5 April 1793, and that the balance of £1,082 was to be paid before April 1798. By that time, however, Gainsborough’s widow had died and it is not known if the Prince settled the outstanding account with the artist’s daughters.
As Hugh Belsey has discussed, Gainsborough’s association with the Prince of Wales promised much, though little was ever completed, largely because of the artist’s exasperation at the Prince’s disinterest in paying his bills. The Prince’s many grandiose projects overstretched his resources, but had his ambitions focused on the decoration of the state rooms at Carlton House, the planned group of portraits by Gainsborough would have been amongst the most extraordinary of Royal commissions ever painted.