Joseph Highmore

Equestrian Portrait of King George II


Not on display

Joseph Highmore 1692–1780
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 750 × 630 mm
Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987


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

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Display caption

Highmore may have painted this small equestrian portrait of George II as a preliminary design for a life-size portrait that remained unexecuted. Several celebrated life-size equestrian portraits, notably those of Anthony Van Dyck and Titian, influence the composition. Although the King wears a fanciful suit of ‘antique’ armour, the portrait may allude specifically to his actual role at the battle of Dettingen in 1743, when he led British and Hanoverian troops to victory against the French. Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon, one of the king’s staunchest allies, probably commissioned the picture.

Gallery label, August 2004

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

Catalogue entry

T04944 Equestrian Portrait of King George II c.1745–55

Oil on canvas 750 × 630 (29 1/2 × 24 3/4)
Inscribed ‘Jos. Highmore | invt. et pinx.t’ b.r. on rock and ‘K. George II’ t.l. on column
Presented by the Patrons of British Art 1987
Prov: Probably painted for Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon; first recorded in a list of pictures hanging at Gordon Castle, Banff (now Grampian), in an inventory compiled c.1764; by descent to the Dukes of Richmond and Gordon; Gordon Castle sale, Anderson and England 30 Aug. 1938 (974, as ‘Charles II’, 26 × 21 in), bt in and moved to Good-wood, W. Sussex, where first listed in inventory compiled Jan. 1952 as no.301; Goodwood Trustees, sold Sotheby's 15 July 1987 (46, repr. in col., also on cover) bt in and subsequently sold to the donors
Exh: The Royal House of Guelph, New Gallery, Regent Street, 1891 (19)
Lit: ‘Description of Pictures in ... Gordon Castle’, c.1764–79, W. Sussex Record Office, Chichester, Goodwood Archives MS 488, p.3, item 24; ‘Catalogue of Pictures at Gordon Castle’, 1877, type-script copy in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, no.53, (as ‘King Charles II’); ‘Good-wood Picture Catalogue’, Jan. 1952, W. Sussex Record Office, Chichester, Goodwood Archives MS 2056, 56, no.301; Oliver Millar, Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection, 1963, I, pp.94–5, no.144; Alison S. Lewis, Joseph Highmore 1692–1780, PhD thesis, Harvard 1975 (University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor 1980), II, pp.370–1, no.3; J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery: Early Georgian Portraits, 1977, I, p.95, II, fig.247; Warren Mild, Joseph Highmore of Holborn Row, Ardmore 1990, pp.6–7

The King is shown on a dapple-grey charger, riding out of a triumphal archway on the left, wearing an approximation of seventeenth-century armour and holding a commander's baton in his right hand. A page boy walks behind him, carrying a plumed helmet; a troop of cavalry in eighteenth-century dress is seen disappearing into the distance beyond the trees on the right. The triumphal military setting suggests that the King is represented here as the victor of Dettingen where, in June 1743, he had led British and Hanoverian troops to victory over the French - the last time a British monarch was to command an army on the battlefield in person. Accounts of his valour and horsemanship on that occasion (his horse bolted during the battle but he was not thrown) enormously increased his popularity in England and he was known to take great pride in the exploit. Other paintings of the King at the battle also show him mounted on a grey (e.g. by John Wootton, National Army Museum, London). His British subjects, however, had criticised him for going into battle wearing the yellow sash of his native Hanover, rather than the blue Garter sash as befitted the King of England. Representing him in archaic armour may have been a tactful way of avoiding a delicate problem, while at the same time fitting the portrait into the traditional European pattern of depicting military heroes in ‘antique’ armour. The armour, according to A.V.B. Norman, former Master of the Royal Armouries (letter to the compiler 23 Nov. 1987), is a misunderstood late sixteenth-century type, with the plates of its legs overlapping the wrong way and the gorget shown outside the breastplate instead of inside it.

The painting is first recorded in a description of pictures at Gordon Castle as hanging ‘in the low Dining Room’: ‘The Picture of Mary Queen of Scots & under it King George the II on Horseback’ (Goodwood MS 488). As the list also includes a portrait of Lady Charlotte Murray, ‘now Dutchess of Athol’, it must have been compiled after January 1764, when Lady Charlotte's husband inherited the title. Similarly, the mention of ‘Katherine, present Dutchess of Gordon’ suggests a date before 1767, when with the marriage of her son Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, to Jane Maxwell, she became the Dowager Duchess; at the very latest it must predate her death in 1779.

It is probable that the painting was commissioned from Highmore by Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon (c.1721–52), a staunch Protestant, who was made a Knight of the Thistle in February 1748 for his loyalty to the Hanoverian cause during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. He was a Representative Peer for Scotland in the House of Lords 1747–52, and spent quite some time in London, where he maintained a house in Grosvenor Street (H. Phillips, Mid-Georgian London, 1964, p.258). He was certainly a patron of the artist, as the Gordon Castle sale included a portrait of his baby son Alexander, later 4th Duke of Gordon, shown as Cupid (signed and dated 1745, 49 1/2 × 39 in, sold Anderson & England, 31 August 1938, lot 1300; also listed in Goodwood MS 488 as ‘22nd Is one of his present Grace when two years old, a highland cupid, a fine picture & like his Grace at that Time’). Alexander's birth in June 1743 almost coincided with the victory at Dettingen, and it is conceivable that the painting may have been a christening present. It may be equally connected with the Duke's younger sons, both of whom were destined for the army. Indeed, his youngest son George (1751–93), later to become famous as the instigator of the Gordon riots of 1780, had the King as his baptismal sponsor and the picture could commemorate this fact (C.A. Gordon, History of the House of Gordon, 1750, reprinted 1890, pp.118–22, 140; J.M. Bulloch, The Gay Gordons, 1908, pp.82, 104, for family of 3rd Duke of Gordon; G.E.C. [G.E. Cokayne], The Complete Peerage, VI, 1926, pp.3–7, for Dukedom of Gordon).

The grandiloquent design of this small painting suggests that it may have been intended as a preliminary try-out for a life-size composition that was never carried out. It would seem to take its inspiration from Van Dyck's great equestrian portrait of Charles I in armour, now in the National Gallery. Indeed it could have been designed as a pendant to it, if not to the original, then at least to one of the numerous copies in many sizes that could be found in many noble and middling households (a number are listed in Millar 1963). Highmore's own family had lost a fortune through their loyalty to Charles I and in ‘the defence of the true Protestant Religion’ (Mild 1990, p.6), so that Van Dyck's image would have been not only an artistic model for the artist but also a personally emotive one.

The profile likeness of the King is based on Highmore's bust portrait, painted sometime in the 1730s, which was known to have belonged to George IV in 1816 and which was burnt in the Carlton House fire on 8 June 1824. It is, however, known from an engraving by John Tinney (Millar 1963, no.518; Lewis 1975, II, p.553 no.3) and shows the King in profile, with similar lion's masks on his shoulders. Its pendant of Queen Caroline is still in the Royal Collection. Although the portrait was probably done from memory and without a specific royal sitting (the king hated having his portrait taken and granted very few sittings), Highmore's emphatic signature on this painting - ‘inv.t et pinx.t’ - probably serves to underline that the likeness of the King is his own and not taken from any other source.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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