An Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge - Sir Joshua Reynolds' William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, 1780
A few years ago two pictures from Trinity College were put on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The college has a collection of about 240 paintings, most of which are portraits of past alumni, masters and fellows but these two paintings reflected the college’s royal connections. The first was a large portrait of King Henry VIII, the college’s founder and patron. It is by the Flemish artist Hans Eworth (1520-74) and based on a lost composition by Hans Holbein. The portrait normally hangs behind high table in the college dining hall from where it exudes royal power and prerogative. The second painting to be shown at the Fitzwilliam was this one: Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester.
The portrait shows William Frederick, George III’s nephew and future son-in-law, standing proud at the tender age of four. Reynolds, the master portraitist, gives him a stature and confidence beyond his years. How does he achieve this? By using the tools of his trade - pose, costume, facial expression and setting. The boy’s stance, left foot forward and right arm extended to hold his feathered hat and cane, is one of authority. His dusky pink suit with lace collar and cuffs looks back to royal portraits by Van Dyck. His direct stare radiates a sense of entitlement, while the low horizon of the landscape forces the viewer to look up to him. Painted in 1780, the picture shows Reynolds, the preeminent portrait painter of the time, at the height of his power. He was, by then, the first President of the Royal Academy (founded in 1768) and only the second artist to receive a knighthood. One contemporary conceded that his genius was to combine truth with fiction.
So what of the subject himself? William Frederick was the only son of William Henry, 1st Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of George III. Through his mother, Maria Walpole, the illegitimate daughter of Edward Walpole, he was the grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister, giving him a distinguished, if slightly complicated, family tree. The young aristocrat was admitted to Trinity College in 1787, aged 11, and gained his degree three years later. He was, however, no child prodigy and was later renowned for his foolishness rather than his intellect, gaining him the nickname “Silly Billy”. Described by a contemporary as being “large and stout, but with weak, helpless legs”, his pomposity and appearance made him the butt of many satirical cartoons by the likes of James Gillray and others. None of this hindered his army career where he rose to the rank of Field Marshal in 1816 or his appointment as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1811 until his death. Did Sir Joshua Reynolds recognise some of his sitter’s character when he painted this portrait or perhaps he painted what his patron wanted to see? Whatever the answer, the painting is one of the most striking and engaging in the college’s collection.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834), 1780, oil on canvas, 136 x 98 cm, Trinity College, Cambridge.
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.