caption

attributed to Godfrey Kneller, Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington (1673–1743)

Photo courtesy of Tom St Aubyn (All rights reserved)

Details

Country House
Raynham Hall
Title(s)
Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington (1673–1743)
Date
c.1715
Location
The Stone Parlour
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
Overall height: 121 cm, Overall width: 98 cm
Artist
attributed to Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723)
Catalogue Number
RN54
Inscription
  • Inscribed on letter in his hand, ‘This/ to the Rt Honble [. . .] Earl of W/ London’

Description

Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington (1673–1743) was the second surviving son of James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton and his second wife Mary, the daughter of Baptist Noel, 3rd Viscount Campden. Several other portraits of Compton family members were sold at the Townshend Heirlooms sale of 1904.1 Compton studied at St Paul’s School, the Middle Temple and Trinity College, Oxford before pursuing a career in politics, advancing to the position of speaker of the House of Commons (1715–27), lord president of the Council (1730–42) and, briefly, prime minister (1742–3). Although he came from a family of High Church Tories – his uncle was Henry Compton, Bishop of London (1632–1713) – he entered Parliament as a Whig and had close dealings with Sir Robert Walpole. He was part of the influential Kit-cat Club and, in about 1710, sat for Kneller’s ‘Kit-cat’ portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 3234). The 1st Earl of Egremont said of Wilmington that ‘His stature is something more than of the middle sort and he is not corpulent though full fleshed’ and Lord John Hervey described him as ‘a plodding, heavy fellow with a great application, but no talents’.2 He did not marry. 

The present portrait, attributed to Kneller, is unrecorded in J. Douglas Stewart’s catalogue raisonné of Kneller’s work but is stated in Duleep Singh’s catalogue of 1928 to be by Kneller and dated 1715. Its attribution could also be questioned because the note in Wilmington’s hand reads ‘This/ to the Rt Honble [. . .] Earl of W/ London’, even though this was a title conferred on him in 1730, seven years after Kneller’s death (George II had created him a baron in 1728). Moreover, he is represented wearing the blue ribbon and badge of the Order of the Garter, a favour which Wilmington only received on 22 August 1733, ten years after Kneller’s death.

Yet, on close inspection, the ribbon and star appear to have been painted over the original portrait: the ribbon has sections of dark outline and some blue paint has bled into the white cravat, while the star appears to float over the undulating surface of his coat. Furthermore, the writing on the note is untidy and inconsistent with the undulations in the painted paper, suggesting that this could also have been a later amendment or addition. The likeness of Wilmington is also similar to that in Kneller’s Kit-cat portrait of c.1710, not of a man twenty years older. Indeed, the sitter’s pose and clothing are comparable to Kneller’s portrait of Sir Christopher Wren of 1711 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG 113), though the gesture of holding a letter and the shaping of his hair is closer to Kneller’s Kit-cat Club portrait of William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (1684–1764) of 1717 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG 3194). Could this therefore be a portrait by Kneller which was executed at some stage in the mid-1710s, perhaps to mark the occasion of Compton’s becoming speaker of the House of Commons or treasurer to the Prince of Wales (both 1715–27), which was overpainted after the artist’s death to keep it up to date with Wilmington’s political and social ascendancy?

To complicate the matter further, two versions of the portrait in the Parliamentary Art Collection represent Wilmington bearing the red ribbon and star of the Order of the Bath (WOA 2740 and WOA 2685), as do other versions at Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire and Compton Place, East Sussex. The Order of the Bath was revived by Sir Robert Walpole in 1725, two years after Kneller’s death, and Wilmington received it that May. There is no visible trace of a red-painted sash on the Raynham Hall portrait but it is possible that a red sash is hidden under the blue sash, and the star of the Order of the Bath amended to show the badge of the Order of the Garter. It is possible that technical analysis may shed further light on the authorship and date of this portrait and its versions.

by Emily Burns

Bibliography

Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, ed. Rev. Edmund Farrer, vol. 2, Norwich : Jarrold and Sons, 1928, vol. 2, p. 224, no. 4, illus. opp. p. 224 (‘SIR SPENCER COMPTON, EARL OF WILMINGTON, K.B., K.G.’)


Footnotes

  1. See Singh, 1928, vol. 2, pp. 200–1, nos 15–20.

    1
  2. Quoted in John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Later Stuart Portraits 1685–1714, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2009, p. 336.

    2

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