This commanding equestrian portrait by Thomas Bardwell offers a quintessential image of the British country house and its owner in the mid-eighteenth century. The portrait depicts Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke dressed in his uniform as a Captain in the 1st foot guards mounted on a bay horse in front of the south front of his ancestral seat, Wilton House, Wiltshire with the Palladian Bridge that spans the River Nadder visible in the background. Signed and dated 1757, the portrait was probably commissioned for the Hon Nicholas Herbert, the 10th earl’s uncle, who was married to Anne North, daughter and heiress of Dudley North of Glemham Hall, Suffolk. The portrait, in its beautifully carved and pierced frame, remained at Glemham Hall until 1923 and by descent in the North family until 2023.
Thomas Bardwell was a painter and writer based in East Anglia who had a diverse and successful practice. The diversity of his work – from estate views and decorative schemes, to conversation pieces and formal portraiture – offers a fascinating insight into the world of a dynamic provincial painter in the decades before the foundation of the Royal Academy. In 1756 Bardwell published in London The Practice of Painting and Perspective Made Easy, an idiosyncratic technical manual for the aspiring artist. Bardwell worked for a wide range of clients, from East Anglian magnates to the Corporation of Norwich. We know that he travelled to Scotland in 1752, stopping en route to produce views of Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire. Bardwell produced a series of portraits for Caroline Scott, Countess of Dalkeith and John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl; for Atholl Bardwell even produced a series of four decorative roundels for the new dining room at Blair Atholl Castle. At least one other grand equestrian portrait survives by Bardwell, depicting William Nassau, 4th Earl of Rochford with a hunter and groom standing before Easton Park, Suffolk (National Trust for Scotland, Brodick Castle). The portrait, signed and dated 1741, originally hung at Easton Park which was less than five miles from Little Glemham.
The portrait of Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke shows the young sitter a year after his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Spencer, daughter of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough. Herbert was, in his own words, ‘horse mad’ and he had attended riding academies during his Grand Tour. Service in the cavalry ensued and he was appointed a cornet in the 1st King’s dragoon guards on 12 October 1752. In 1761 Pembroke published A Method of Breaking Horses, and Teaching Soldiers to Ride. This hugely influential book provided sensible, much-needed advice, placing emphasis on the need for officers to superintend the management of horses, advocating riding with a natural seat, and opposed to the docking of horses’ tails. This may account for the unusual naturalism of the horse in Bardwell’s portrait, where the tail has been left unaltered. Herbert had trained in the refinements of haute école in Pisa with Baron Reis d’Eisenberg. Uniquely in eighteenth-century England, Pembroke constructed riding houses both in London and in the country. In Bardwell’s portrait, Pembroke’s horse is shown in a classic pose from the Baron’s own publication L’Art de monter à cheval ou description du manege modern, dans sa perfection… of 1747 which was illustrated with prints by Bernard Picart, specifically plate XVI ‘Le Resolu’, the pose is also found in one of the fifty-five gouaches of riders performing dressage by d’Eisenberg himself and still at Wilton.
Bardwell has positioned Pembroke in the grounds at Wilton, adapting the relationship of the house to the grounds to produce a seamless backdrop for the mounted earl. In the left-hand background of the composition Bardwell shows a view of the famous Palladian Bridge across the River Nadder, Bardwell has then flattened the angle of the south front of Wilton so that it no longer appears at right angles to the bridge. The adapted view point is characteristic of Bardwell who noted in his The Practice of Painting and Perspective Made Easy ‘A painter is not to be confined strictly to the Rules of Perspective; but to make the subservient to his Purposes.’ The bridge had been completed in 1737 and possibly had great resonance for both the sitter and the first owner of the painting, as it had been designed by Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke in collaboration with the architect Roger Morris. The first owner of this portrait seems likely to have been the 9th earl’s brother, Nicholas Herbert and it may well have been commissioned to celebrate his young nephew’s marriage and appointment as Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, both of which took place in 1756.
Pembroke himself commissioned a sequence of portraits celebrating his household and his horsemanship. In 1769 David Morier and Richard Brompton completed four portraits depicting: Pembroke with his écuyer, Domenico Angelo; Pembroke with his son, George Herbert, later 11th Earl of Pembroke; Lieutenant John Floyd with a groom in fancy dress and Lieutenant John Kinsey, all with views of Wilton in the background. A further portrait by Morier of Pembroke mounted celebrating his appointment as Colonel of the 1st Royal Dragoons survives in the Royal Collection. But there is no sign that the present portrait ever hung at Wilton or was replicated for the Pembroke collection, its provenance strongly points to it having been commissioned by the sitter’s uncle, the Hon Nicholas Herbert, who married the Suffolk heiress Anne North. Anne North was the granddaughter of the wealthy Elihu Yale, President of the East India Company and primary benefactor of Yale University, she inherited Glemhan Hall on the death of her politician father, Dudley North. Anne left Glemham, in turn, to her great-nephew Dudley Long North and the portrait has remained in the North family ever since.
- Francis Russell, A Catalogue of the Pictures and Drawings at Wilton House, Oxford, 2021, pp.125-126.
- Quoted by Kate Retford The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, New Haven and London, 2017, p.59.
- Francis Russell, A Catalogue of the Pictures and Drawings at Wilton House, Oxford, 2021, pp108-109.