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About a Painting – ‘Cornet Edward Walpole’

PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 April 2014

Cornet Edward Walpole, c.1755-59, artist unknown

Cornet Edward Walpole, c.1755-59, artist unknown

derby museum copyright

Lucy Bamford, Derby Museums’ Keeper of Art writes about ‘Cornet Edward Walpole’, c.1755-59, artist unknown

Derby museum and art gallery has appeared on television a few times over the years and recently one of our lesser-known faces had a brush with stardom, in the form of a Culture Show Special on BBC2. Subtitled The Lost Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the show followed the BBC’s Fake or Fortune art detective, Bendor Grosvenor, as he sought to locate and identify a likeness of Prince Charles Edward Stuart by the great 18th century portraitist, Allan Ramsay, during the prince’s ill-fated campaign of 1745.

Derby boasts numerous monuments to its involvement in the prince’s attempt to seize the crown for his father; from the statue of the prince by the Cathedral to the preserved room in the museum where the decision to turn north was made, leading to Culloden, the last battle fought on British soil. For more than 100 years the city’s art gallery has been home to an enigmatic and youthful portrait of Charles, as Bendor discovered, however, fresh research conducted between 2009 and 2011 revealed that all was not as it might have seemed. The painting was deposited at the museum in 1902 and subsequently catalogued with the description ‘Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay’. It had enjoyed considerable attention but when the museum started planning a new display of portraits from its collection, suspicions were raised. There was little doubt that this was a mid-18th century painting but the picture’s attribution to Allan Ramsay was less clear. In addition, the sitter’s red, military style coat, and the inclusion of a black, rather than white, Stuart ribbon cockade in his hat, triggered questions about the sitter’s identity.

With recourse to experts in military uniform, we discovered that in fact we had a portrait of a British cavalry officer and with the discovery of an identical portrait by Thomas Hudson (1701-1779), we identified the sitter as Edward Walpole (1737-1771), the grandson of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Its reinterpretation is a good example of the way clothing and accessories in portraiture can be used to reveal aspects of a sitter’s identity. Edward quite literally wears his occupation, rank, and social status, on his sleeve. His black three cornered hat, red coat, yellow coloured waistcoat, and silver buttons, all trimmed with glittering silver lace, comprise the uniform of the British cavalry regiment, the Inniskilling Dragoons, as worn around the mid-18th century. A deep red sash completes his outfit, confirming his status as an officer, while his youthful looks suggest this portrait represents him as a Cornet (a low ranking officer within the cavalry). His pose is regulated by equally strict codes and social conventions. One hand tucked inside his waistcoat and the other drawing his coat tails back, he adopts a genteel stance emphasising his status as an officer and gentleman. The fine lace of his shirt cuffs and cravat, expensive scarlet coat cloth, and carefully powdered wig, reflect the refined aspects of his occupation.

In comparison to the more practical uniform and equipment of the common soldier, Edward’s clothing and accessories are concerned with the visibility and legibility of his rank and class, as opposed to the battlefield and the bloody reality of war.

Unfortunately, although his military career was initially successful, Edward died, aged just 33 years old, following a long battle against an alcohol and gambling addiction that almost ruined his family.

The tale ought to have ended here, but for a new lead: Bendor Grosvenor suspects that this copy of a Thomas Hudson original may be the work of one of his many pupils, who included Derby’s own Joseph Wright.

Wright was certainly known to have copied his master’s work, as 18th century methods and theories of artistic training recommended. Could this be a lost Joseph Wright? The investigation continues.

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