This is a painting of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It is an oil on canvas painted in 1829. In this portrait, Wellington’s commanding gaze evokes his resolve in defeating his critics, of which there were many at this time. His troops called him ‘old nosey’ and he called them (somehow respectfully) the ‘scum of the earth’.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was a famed and prolific painter (around 690 portraits) and was the President of the Royal Academy. He died before finishing this portrait and the commissioner declined to have it completed by a studio assistant. This unfinished state gives us valuable insight into Lawrence’s working practices.
Arthur Wesley was born in 1769 into an aristocratic Irish family and spent his childhood in Ireland. (It was later in life he changed his name to Wellesley). His academic performance was uninspiring and only his violin playing showed any real promise. His father died when he was 12 years old – and as he grew older he became unsociable and occasionally aggressive.
He joined the military; his brother’s wealth and influence securing him a number of commissions. Then he secured a seat in the Irish parliament. Meanwhile, successful in military campaigns in India and was promoted to the rank of major general. And in 1803, he was a wealthy man and growing further in status – becoming MP for Rye in April. In 1806 he married Kitty Pakenham.
He assumed overall command of British forces in the Iberian Peninsula (Britain and Spain at war with France) and was victorious over the Napoleonic forces – all Europe now acknowledged Wellington’s military genius. In 1814 Napoleon was captured, abdicated and imprisoned on the island of Elba. Arthur Wellesley was bestowed the Duke of Wellington and on becoming Ambassador to France, Wellington moved to Paris – and had relationships with several of Napoleon’s former mistresses.
In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France to reunite his forces at Waterloo. Wellington was even celebrating Napoleon’s defeat at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels when he heard this – and said; ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God’.
There followed the fierce fighting at the Battle of Waterloo, where thanks to the intervention of the Prussians under General Blucher, the allies won and Napoleon was defeated once again and exiled to the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died six years later, age 51.
In his later years, Wellington opposed Parliamentary reform and became embroiled in affairs and kiss-and-tell stories – and was ridiculed by the press. His autocratic style, effective in battle, was not working in politics.
He was Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830 and oversaw the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (catholic emancipation), but tried (and failed) to stop parliamentary reform (the Great Reform Act of 1832). His popularity continued to fall and he was even forced to install iron shutters at his home, Apsley House, London.
The Duke of Wellington died in 1852 following a stroke at his favourite home, Walmer Castle, in Kent. At his state funeral, his mixed political legacy was forgotten and he was the hero of Waterloo once more. On the 18 November, the display of grief was more extravagant than anything seen before – even the Lord Mayors show was cancelled for the first time ever.
The British and Americans were at war again in 1812 – Britain seeking American land and America seeking Canadian land. Due to his successes against Napoleon, Wellington if he would lead British forces in America. He advised against this as Britain had no naval control of the Great Lakes that separated the United States from Canada. The British government accepted this advice from their top military expert and ordered British negotiators, at a summit between the parties in Ghent, to drop the demands for American territory. The Americans then dropped their demands for Canadian territory – and peace was achieved through the pragmatic advice of Wellington. (It still took another three years for final peace to prevail following British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans under American General Andrew Jackson – making way for the special relationship).