This finely rendered and highly sensitive portrait of the Whig politician Charles James Fox was drawn by the Irish portraitist, Hugh Douglas Hamilton for William FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster. Fox and Leinster were first cousins, their mothers having been two of the notorious Lennox sisters, daughters of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond and granddaughters of King Charles II. The present pastel was one of a series of thirty-six commissioned by the Duke of Leinster to decorate a room at his Irish seat, Carton House. The survival of this previously unpublished work offers fascinating evidence of pastel portraits and their use in commemorating personal and familial ties during the eighteenth century. More than this, as a very fine, highly sensitive and private portrait of one of the most famous figures of the eighteenth century it is an important addition to both Hamilton’s oeuvre and Fox’s iconography.
Charles James Fox was one of the most recognizable sitters of the eighteenth century. His features, described by Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in 1815 as ‘dark, harsh, and saturnine, like Charles II, derived a sort of majesty from the addition of two black and shaggy eyebrows, which sometimes concealed, but more frequently developed, the workings of his mind’, where frequently depicted in marble, paint and print. Fox’s popularity as a reformist, liberal Whig meant that his friends, admirers and political allies were keen to display his portrait, with the result that Joseph Nollekens’s bust of the politician was repeated constantly and by August 1803 he had made fourteen versions and by June 1807 twenty-one busts with orders for a further eight. In contrast to these monumental marble depictions of Fox, the present pastel is a very informal, private portrait of Fox made for his own family circle. Probably made in 1777 on one of Fox’s visits to Ireland, it was commissioned by his first-cousin William FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster. As Ruth Kenny has recently explained, Hamilton’s small-scale pastel portraits: ‘functioned as personal documents, reinforcing familial and social ties in an affectionate rather than in a genealogical way…they operated on a network rather than lineal system and built up a more complex, layered picture of a family and its social life than any single work could achieve.’ This idea of the personal network the Duke of Leinster created is confirmed by a nineteenth-century inventory of the pictures of Carton House, which lists some thirty-six pastels in the ‘Duke’s Study’. It is an idea given added weight by the survival of a series of copies of the Carton Hamiltons. A version of the present portrait of Fox survives at Castletown, the home of another of Leinster’s first-cousins, Thomas Conolly. Leinster in turn had a version of Hamilton’s portrait of Conolly, thus reinforcing the strong ties between the two families.
Simply portrayed, bust-length, against a monochrome background, Hamilton’s portrait of Fox eliminates all extraneous details and props. Unlike the more celebrated portraits of Fox, such as Reynolds’s half-length portrait of 1782 (Holkham Hall, Norfolk), which shows him with his hand resting on a draft of the India Bill, Hamilton’s depiction concentrates on Fox’s animated features. This simplicity also leant visual uniformity to the group of family members assembled on the walls at Carton and Castletown. Finely finished in Hamilton’s characteristic manner, the present picture is an extraordinary testament to the ties of family which governed eighteenth century Britain.
- It is unclear whether the present work is the portrait mentioned by Ingamells as being in a ‘private collection’, or whether it is the portrait currently belonging to the Castletown Foundation.
- Quoted in John Ingamells, The National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, London, 2004, p.163.
- See Nicholas Penny, ‘The Whig Cult of Fox in early Nineteenth-Century Sculpture’, Past and Present, 70, February 1976, pp.94-105.
- Ruth Kenny, ‘Blown from the face-powders of the age’: the early pastel portrait, c.1760-1780’, in ed.Anne Hodges, Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808); A Life in Pictures, exh. cat., Dublin (National Gallery of Ireland), 2008, p.21.
- Reproduced in ed. Anne Hodge, Hugh Douglas Hamilton: A life in Pictures, exh. cat. Dublin (National Gallery of Ireland), 2008, cat. no. 26.
- Conolly’s portrait is reproduced in ed. Anne Hodge, Hugh Douglas Hamilton: A life in Pictures, exh. cat. Dublin (National Gallery of Ireland), 2008, cat. no. 14. For the Leinster version of the portrait see: Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, online edition.