John James Baker

The Whig Junto


John James Baker active c.1685 – 1725
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 3190 × 3649 × 37 mm
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


This is the only known group portrait of the politically significant Whig Junto, an ideologically close-knit group of political peers who provided the leadership, focus and drive of the Whig party in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The portrait is signed and dated 1710, before the crushing electoral defeat of the Whigs in October of that year. From left to right, the sitters 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; William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire; and Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford. Each sitter has an identifying carved and painted coat of arms attached to the painting’s frame. The portrait was presumably commissioned by Orford, who stands as if welcoming the company, and whose dog on the far right wears a collar bearing his name. The portrait 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 is a relaxed gathering of fellow virtuosi, seated round a table consulting antique medals and bound 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 having been one of the founders of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, with its political and cultural agenda, and who in 1709 had purchased the Resta collection of drawings from Italy. Halifax had a celebrated library and a collection of antique medals (sold in 1740), to which those being consulted presumably allude. Behind this facade, 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 ambitions to gain Spanish American trade routes through their policy of defeating France in Europe. The magnificent setting conjures one of the Junto’s country house meetings where, in between parliamentary sessions, policy and party strategy was debated and formulated. These private meetings were usually timed to coincide with the Newmarket races, for which Orford’s mansion, Chippenham, was ideally located.

The painter 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. As a group portrait on this scale (over three and a half by nearly four metres framed), it is one of the most ambitious portraits to have been painted in the early eighteenth century. The programme of the painting 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 thus demonstrates Orford’s private networks as well as his political and professional ones. It is a picture that expresses his pride and ambition, his public achievement and the private and professional networks that sustained his power and influence.

Further reading
Vertue Notebooks III, Walpole Society, vol.XXII, 19334, p.33.

Tabitha Barber
October 2017

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