National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 17, 1971

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 1 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 2 here for an enlarged image

Chandos, Marlborough and Kneller: 
Painting and "Protest" in the Age of Queen Anne

by Douglas Stewart

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

What is perhaps Sir Godfrey Kneller's largest work on the North American continent is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada - a life-size group portrait of James Brydges, Ist Duke of Chandos (1674-1744), and his family (fig. 2). (1) Chandos was one of the most remarkable figures of his age. The son of a Herefordshire squire, he rose by force of personality, administrative ability and the favour of the Duke of Marlborough to become Paymaster of the Forces Abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession. From this post he amassed an immense fortune (since the Paymaster was able to speculate with the monies he received) became a lavish patron of the arts, and in 1719 acquired a dukedom. He remodelled a great Jacobean mansion, Cannons Park (fig. I), in the Georgian baroque style, stuffed it with works of art, and kept a "concert" of thirty performers, eventually including Handel, who wrote his oratorio Esther there. (2)

In certain respects the life-style of "Princely Chandos" was, as contemporaries recognized, as grand as that of a German electoral prince, and his ostentation and pretensions were widely (but wrongly) assumed to be the subject of Pope's satire, "Timon's Villa", in his Epistle to Lord Burlington. However the glories of Cannons barely survived its creator's death in 1744, and within the next four years the whole structure was sold piecemeal and demolished. Today the only architectural relics are the great staircase, which after a chequered history has found its way to the Metropolitan Museum, and the moulded ceiling of the church at Great Witley, Worcestershire, probably made in papier mâché from squeezes taken from the stucco work of Bagutti in the Cannons Chapel. (3)

Some of the contents of Cannons were evidently second-rate works with lofty attributions. For as Chandos' biographer, C. H. Collins Baker, observed of him, "his very nature was incurably credulous and prone to think the best of people: a handicap not altogether unendearing, but of no positive advantage in collecting masterpieces." (4) Nevertheless, among Cannons's treasures were decorations by Laguere, Thornhill and others - Grinling Gibbons' famous carving of the Stoning of St. Stephen (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the splendid Poussin, The Choice of Hercules, now at Stourhead. (5)

Kneller's portrait, which is signed and dated 1713, (6) shows the Chandos family in Arcadian fashion, on a terrace flanked by curtains at the left and a landscape with a brook at the right. The picture now measures 58 by 70 3/4 inches but originally must have been somewhat larger, judging from a studio copy among the Byng sketch books in the British Museum (fig. 3). (7) At some point it was cut down, unfortunately mutilating parts of the work, among them the small singing bird at the top right. 

Over the years, the identity of the sitters (aside from the Duke) has become confused. George Vertue, the engraver and antiquary, seems to have begun the process when he visited Cannons in 1725 and recorded "his own picture [i.e. Chandos] his first Lady. his sons & a daughter by sr. G. Kneller." (8) The entry in the National Gallery catalogue describes the seated woman as Mary Lake, Chandos' first wife, and the children as a boy and a girl. Actually, the woman is Chandos' second wife, Cassandra Willoughby, whom he married in August 1713, his first wife having died in December 1712. The children are those of the first wife and are both boys - (John later Marquis of Camarvon) and Henry (later 2nd Duke of Çhandos), aged ten and five years respectively. The misidentification of Henry as a little girl is not surprising since it was customary in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to dress little boys in "feminine" robes, usually up to the age of four or five, when they were "breeched". (9)

The general character of Kneller's picture is uncompromisingly English Augustan - as plain, sturdy and dignified as a piece of Addison's prose, or the silver or baluster glasses that graced the walnut tables of the period. (Quite the opposite of the style across the Channel). Just two years earlier, Addison himself bad described French portraits as "very remarkable for their smiles and a certain smirking Air...bestowed indifferently on every Age and Degree of either sex. The Toujours Gai appeared even in Judges, Bishops and Privy Counsellors...every part of the Dress was in a Flutter, and endeavoured to distinguish itself above the rest." (10) It was a character that fitted the Duke and his family admirably since, as Collins Baker has so aptly observed, "James Brydges was the offspring of a union between the aristocratic landed gentry and the merchant class, and remained constant to that parentage. He was not at all our conception of a great eighteenth-century English duke." (11)

Indeed, in spite of the scale of the portrait, it has a rather informal, almost domestic air about it, pointing ahead to the vogue for the "conversation piece". To be sure, the Duke's pose is conventional enough, and was used by Kneller on at least one other occasion about this time, (12) but his head is splendidly modelled and is superbly framed by his wig. Moreover, there are passages of real charm in expression and colour. There is an appealing homeliness about the Duchess and a touching tenderness in her relationship with the children, so recently left motherless. The softness of the central boy' s glance is matched by a softness of lighting and a transparency of colour and texture, indications of Kneller's move to a more rococo-like style. (13) They boy wears a faded rose tunic with blue ties, which serves as both a colouristic and a compositional caesura. The Duke's coat of cool blue-grey, with silver buttons and trim, is set off to the left by a bright-red curtain, and becomes lavender by his son's coat; while the Duchess' gold dress ripens to orange in the same direction. All these colours are echoed in the landscape, which like many of Kneller's late landscapes has a softness and lyricism that seems to look ahead to Gainsborough.

As we know from the Cannons inventory of 1725, (14) the Kneller group hung, appropriately enough, in the so-called "Family Room", presumably over the mantel. (15) Chandos was in fact a considerable patron of Kneller over the years, as the inventories of Cannons and the Duke's other houses testify; and apparently only death prevented Kneller from undertaking the decoration of the Great Staircase Hall at Cannons. (16)

One of the most interesting of the other Kneller canvases once owned by Chandos is a signed and dated (1712) full-length portrait of Chandos' patron, the Duke of Marlborough, which now belongs to Lord Spencer (fig. 4). (17) The Duke is portrayed in parade armour, with a curtain and plinth to the left, an eagle above, and in the background a curious seated female figure with her head resting on her hand. The meaning of this figure, like that of most of the grisaille figures in the backgrounds of Kneller's portraits, would probably have remained obscure but for the happy, chance survival of explanatory documents.

Next Page2 January 1712

  |  2  |  3  |  4

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"