John James Baker

The Whig Junto

1710

In Tate Britain

Artist
John James Baker active c.1685 – 1725
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 3190 × 3649 × 37 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
From the collection of Richard and Patricia, Baron and Baroness Sandys. Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2018
Reference
T15046

Summary

This is a portrait of a political group named the Whig Junto and a Black servant, whose identity is unknown. It is the only known portrait of the Junto, which was an ideologically close-knit group of political peers who formed the leadership of the Whig party in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The members of the group are shown gathered together on a grand terrace, while a vista onto a garden is revealed by the Black servant, who holds back a heavy velvet curtain. The grand architectural setting is imagined, and is deliberately evocative of power and status. The picture was commissioned by Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford, who stands on the right, as if welcoming the company. It is not known if Orford had a Black servant in his household or whether the individual was included to emphasise Orford’s wealth and social standing. At the time, Britain was profiting heavily from the trade of enslaved people from West Africa. The presence of Black servants, many of whom were enslaved, in both aristocratic and merchant households had come to symbolise property and wealth. This reflected the dehumanising view of enslaved Black people held by the British elite.

The scene conjures one of the Junto’s country house meetings where, in between parliamentary sessions, policy and party strategy were formulated. From left to right the sitters round the table can be identified as Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland; Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton; John Somers, 1st Baron Somers; Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax; and William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire. The lavish surroundings probably represent Orford’s house, Chippenham, where Junto meetings sometimes took place. It was also ideally located for the nearby Newmarket horse races, which the members of the Junto frequently attended when parliament was not sitting.

The portrait is dated 1710, before the crushing electoral defeat of the Whigs in October of that year. It shows the political allies while in power, when Sunderland was Secretary of State, Wharton Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Somers Lord President of the Privy Council, Devonshire Lord Steward and a member of the Privy Council, and Orford First Lord of the Admiralty. On the surface the portrait shows a relaxed gathering of fellow connoisseurs , seated round a table consulting antique medals and books of prints. Fittingly, Somers and Halifax sit at the centre of the company, holding a book and handling a medal respectively. Both were known collectors and antiquarians – Somers was one of the founders of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, a convivial drinking and dining club, but which also had a political propagandist agenda; he had also purchased the Resta collection of drawings from Italy in 1709. Halifax had a celebrated library and a collection of antique medals (sold in 1740), to which those being consulted presumably allude. Behind this exterior of cultural appreciation, however, the portrait advertises Whig policy in 1709–10, which supported the continuation of war against France in opposition to Tory calls for peace. The two visible prints are friezes from Trajan’s column showing episodes from the Dacian wars, with the Roman army crossing the Danube. The viewer is invited to make parallels between the valour and victories of the Roman emperors and the current military greatness achieved for Britain by the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns. The globe, showing the Pacific, presumably alludes to Whig foreign policy ambitions beyond Europe. By defeating France in Europe, they aimed to gain commercial access to Spanish American trade routes. It reflects the competitive European colonial pursuit of new markets, including the selling of enslaved West African people to Spanish territories overseas.

John James Baker (or Backer, or Bakker) is thought to have been Flemish, from Antwerp. He was Godfrey Kneller’s (1646–1723) long-time studio assistant and drapery painter, and this is his largest, most ambitious and complex work. The symbolic programme was presumably devised by Orford in discussion with Baker. The Duke of Devonshire was not a regular member of the Junto, although an increasingly important Whig peer, but his inclusion here is presumably because of his kinship relationship with Orford. The picture is thus a demonstration of Orford’s private as well as professional networks, and also his pride and ambition. It would have been displayed at Chippenham in the newly appointed, fashionable interiors, alongside other works that Orford commissioned to advertise his public achievement and the private and professional networks that sustained his power and influence.

Further reading
Vertue Notebooks III, Walpole Society, vol.XXII, 1933–4, p.33 (for information on Baker).
Tabitha Barber and Tim Bachelor, British Baroque: Power and Illusion, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2020, pp.157–8.

Tabitha Barber
October 2017, revised August 2020

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

This portrait shows the leaders of the political Whig party. Everything about it is designed to demonstrate their power. The first Earl of Orford, who commissioned the picture, stands on the right. A Black servant appears behind the gathered guests. We do not know the identity of the servant, or even if a Black servant worked in Orford’s household. Britain was profiting from the increasing trade of enslaved people from West Africa. Most of the Black servants who worked in British households were enslaved. They were seen by the white British elite as symbols of their wealth and often depicted in paintings to reflect this. The imagined grand setting adds to the intended impression of affluence and power. The portrait advertises the Whigs’ pro-war foreign policy. Prints of Roman victories emphasise Britain’s current military successes in Europe. The globe may refer to British interest in accessing new trading routes.

Gallery label, August 2020

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like