Sir Neil O'Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killeleagh (c.1658-90) is depicted in a richly ornamented costume that would have identified him to contemporaries as an indigenous Irish chieftain. He stands in an open landscape, with a mountain in the distance. At his side is an Irish wolfhound, whose metal collar is inscribed with his master's name: 'Sr. Neill O Neall' [sic]. From 1652 onwards, it had been forbidden to export these valuable dogs.
At Sir Neil's feet, lower left, lies a closely observed, though incomplete, suit of Japanese armour. Its presence is a puzzle, for although Japan had been closed to Westerners since the 1620s, John Michael Wright clearly must have had access to such armour. It is of a style called 'Do-Maru', meaning 'round the body'; worn during the period c.1350-1530, it was of a type kept as gifts for eminent people. O'Neill was an uncompromising Roman Catholic, who was to become a Captain of Dragoons in the army of the Catholic, British king, James II (reigned 1685-88) and was to die after fighting at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The Japanese were perceived in the West as persecutors of Catholics, so the armour may have been included in order to represent O'Neill as a defender of his faith, treading on the deflated armour of its enemies. O'Neill's left hand rests on a large circular shield and his right arm is raised in the act of throwing a short spear. Behind him, to the left, an unidentified attendant holds further similar weapons.
As was often his custom, Wright inscribed, signed and dated the back of the canvas: 'Sir Neil. Oneil Baronet ¦ of Killilaugh; Jos. Mich: Wright Londsis Pictor Regius ¦ pinxit. 1680.' In translation, the last four words, which are in Latin, claim that the portrait was painted by Wright, who was a Londoner and was painter to the British king Charles II (reigned 1660-85). In fact, although he seems to have portrayed Charles at least twice, Wright never held an official royal post.
Like O'Neill, and indeed many of his other sitters, Wright was a Catholic, and as such he was exiled from London to Ireland in 1679, where he seems to have remained until 1683, evidently painting this work while he was there. A second version is now in the collection at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland.
By 1689, one version of this image was recorded in the collection of the Irish Dukes of Ormonde, where it was paired with a full-length of a young Scotsman, Sir Mungo Murray (1668-1700) in highland costume. The latter image, also by Wright, survives in three versions (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, collection of Lord Forteviot and private collection). The Murrays and Ormondes were related by marriage, but no specific links have yet been identified between the Ormonde and O'Neill families. Nevertheless, by 1706 the two full-length images were among Wright's best known works, according to the art enthusiast Buckeridge, who wrote that: 'He also drew a High-Land Laird in his proper Habit, and an Irish Tory in his Country Dress, both which Whole Lengths were in so great Repute'. (Bainbrigge Buckeridge, An Essay Towards an English School of Painters, 1706, p.479).
S. Stevenson and D. Thomson, John Michael Wright, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1982, pp.88-91, reproduced in colour p.26
Jane Fenlon, 'John Michael Wright's "Highland laird" identified', Burlington Magazine, October 1988, pp.767-9
Masterpieces of British Art from the Tate Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art Kobe 1998, cat. no. 6, p.214 reproduced in colour