Although highly finished, Highmore may nevertheless have painted this small equestrian portrait of George II (1683-1760) as a preliminary design for a life-size portrait that remained unexecuted. The composition is clearly influenced by the celebrated life-size equestrian portrait of Charles I (1600-49) painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) in 1633 (London, National Gallery), which was in turn based upon the 1548 portrait of the emperor Charles V by Titian (c.1488-1576) (Prado, Madrid). Given the grandeur of Highmore's composition and its precedents, it has been suggested (Tate 1996, p.37) that the present portrait may have been planned as a pendant to Van Dyck's portrait, or to one of the numerous copies taken from it.

As in Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I, George II is dressed in full armour and mounted upon a charger. He emerges from beneath a classical triumphal arch, a device also used by Van Dyck in another equestrian portrait of Charles I (Royal Collection Trust). Behind him is a pageboy carrying his plumed helmet. In the distance, to the right, can be discerned a cavalry troop.

While the picture alludes generally to the King's prowess as a military leader, it may also have had a specific reference to the battle of Dettingen of 1743, in which George II had personally led British and Hanoverian troops to victory against the French. It was, moreover, a victory that had greatly boosted his popularity among his British subjects, who were otherwise suspicious of his strong adherence to his German roots. Indeed, George had been criticised for wearing Hanoverian colours at the battle. Here he wears a fanciful suit of 'antique' armour.

The picture was probably commissioned by Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon (c.1721-52), to whom it belonged by about 1764, when it hung at Gordon Castle, Banff, Scotland. The Duke of Gordon was an ardent supporter of George II and played a prominent role in quelling the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, for which he was made a Knight of the Thistle in 1748. It has been suggested (Tate 1996, p.37) that the Duke of Gordon may have commissioned this picture either as a christening present for his son, Alexander, later 4th Duke of Gordon (1743-1827) or his youngest son, George (1751-93), whose baptismal sponsor was the King.

Joseph Highmore was a contemporary and close friend of William Hogarth (1697-1764). He worked principally as a portraitist and also as a painter of historical and literary subjects, in small scale and on the scale of life. Originally trained as a lawyer, Highmore began working as a portraitist in 1715, eventually retiring in 1761 to follow his literary pursuits.

Further reading:
Tate Gallery 1986-88. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1996, pp.36-7

Martin Postle
June 2001