National Portrait Gallery launches appeal to buy Wellington painting

Gallery needs to raise £300,000 to acquire unfinished Duke of Wellington portrait – and plug a 160-year-old gap in its collection

A 160-year-old problem at the National Portrait Gallery will be fixed if it manages to raise £300,000 from the public to buy an unfinished portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

The gallery on Thursday launched an appeal to help buy the portrait that would fill a significant hole in its collection – the lack of a significant depiction of one of British history’s most important figures.

“We’ve been seeking to remedy this gap since our founding in 1856,” said the gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan. “This has long been identified as a crucial omission in our collection.”

The gallery has been offered the chance to buy Sir Thomas Lawrence’s unfinished portrait of Wellington, known as the Jersey portrait, for £1.3m.

With a donation of £350,000 from the Art Fund and using its own funds, £1m of the total has already been raised. The gallery now needs to find the remainder by the end of March 2017.

The portrait of Duke of Wellington
The portrait. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/PA

Cullinan said the fact it is unfinished made the portrait more compelling. “You focus on the man himself rather than his accoutrements of success and power. This is the one above all others that we wanted to pursue,” he said.

The portrait was commissioned a year after Wellington became prime minister by his friend and admirer Sarah Villiers, the Countess of Jersey, a leading society hostess and well-known gossip whose nickname was Silence.Lawrence died in 1830, leaving the portrait unfinished, although Lady Jersey could have had the artist’s studio complete it had she wanted. It was a deliberate decision not to.

There has been speculation that Lady Jersey, and Wellington, a serial philanderer, were more than just good friends. The historian Andrew Roberts said: “Frankly, from what I know about Wellington and his love life, unless you can write it off, it is safer to assume he did sleep with whoever we are talking about.”

Roberts said Wellington was an extraordinary figure who was one of the greatest generals in British history. He remains the only person to go through the entire declension of the British peerage, beginning as the honourable Arthur Wellesley, before becoming Sir Arthur, Baron Wellington, Viscount Wellington, Earl of Wellington, Marquis of Wellington and, finally, Duke of Wellington.

Roberts said the Lawrence portrait was a powerful one: “You can see in the face, this man is utterly driven, utterly competent, completely in control of his environment.”

The campaign to buy the portrait was backed by the historian Dan Snow. “The ‘Iron Duke’ is one of the towering figures of British history,” he said. “He never lost a battle, reshaped Europe and dominated Britain until his death.

“His career and legacy are intimately involved with the development of the United Kingdom. Now, more than 200 years after his most famous victory at the Battle of Waterloo, it’s time we helped the National Portrait Gallery win the day.”

The gallery tried unsuccessfully to buy another Lawrence portrait of Wellington about a decade ago.

The present portrait was passed through Lady Jersey’s family until it came to the market in 2013 and was bought by the private collector now offering it to the National Portrait Gallery. It has been on loan to the gallery since last year.

Details on how to donate are at npg.org.uk/wellington.

Contributor

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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