Captain the Honourable George Edgcumbe, 1720-95

A three-quarter-length portrait wearing captain's full-dress uniform, 1748-67. He wears his own hair, tied in a bow at the back and a waistcoat and cuffs edged in gold. He holds the hilt of his sword in his left hand and his right hand is tucked into his waistcoat. His hat is tucked under his left arm, the cockade visible. George Edgcumbe was second son of Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe, whose estate at Mount Edgcumbe overlooked Plymouth Sound. In the portrait, Edgcumbe stands before two classical columns with an ivy-covered wall on his left. Although they do not refer to specific buildings at Mount Edgcumbe (where there were no classical structures until the erection of a mock-temple garden folly in 1755), these architectural elements are symbolically suggestive of a grand and venerable property, indicating that the young officer belongs to a noble family with a large estate. Another detail specifically identifies the setting of the portrait as Mount Edgcumbe: the three cannon in the bottom left-hand corner represent the gun battery that Captain Edgcumbe had installed on the estate in 1747. The ship shown in the distance is the ‘Salisbury’, 50 guns, of which Edgcumbe was captain when he captured a wealthy French East Indiaman in 1747. The African long-tailed paradise wydah bird that perches on the trailing ivy, top right, may have come from this ship, since Indiamen often brought home exotic species. Edgcumbe was subsequently commodore of a small squadron in the Mediterranean in 1752–56. In 1758, he assisted at Boscawen's capture of Louisbourg and, in the following year, he shared in Hawke's victory in Quiberon Bay. He was also MP for Fowey from 1746 until he became 3rd Baron Edgcumbe and Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall on the death of his elder brother Richard in 1761. He was made Viscount Mount Edgcumbe in 1781 and raised to an earldom in 1789. Captain Edgcumbe’s father was an important patron of Reynolds, lending much support to the young painter during his early practice in Plymouth in the mid-late 1740s. However, this portrait was commissioned from the artist by the Corporation of Plympton, which was responsible for the parliamentary borough of Plympton Erle in Devon. At the same time, the Corporation also commissioned Reynolds to produce a portrait depicting the naval officer Paul Henry Ourry, who was Edgcumbe’s first lieutenant in the ‘Salisbury’ and who was related by marriage to the Trebys, a landowning family in Plympton. The borough of Plympton was jointly controlled by the Edgcumbes and the Trebys and therefore, in commissioning the portraits of Captain Edgcumbe and Lieutenant Ourry, the Corporation were paying tribute to the landowning patrons of the borough. The two portraits cost 4 guineas each and were displayed together in the dining room of the Mayoralty House in Plympton, where they were seen by the young Scottish painter David Wilkie in 1809, prompting him to remark that they ‘were, for composition, as fine as any thing [Reynolds] ever did afterwards’. When the borough of Plympton was disenfranchised in 1832, Captain Edgcumbe’s portrait was given to his son, Richard, 2nd Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. Ourry’s portrait was given to the Treby family; it is now part of the collection at Saltram House in Devon. In 1740, Reynolds was apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson in London, before starting his own portraiture business in his native Devon in 1743. In 1749, he left to travel to Italy. Returning to England in 1752, he set up in London and rapidly began to make a name as portrait painter, profoundly influenced by his time in the Mediterranean. He became the first President of the Royal Academy in 1768 and was knighted in 1769. He was the most influential figure of the century in elevating British portraiture. Reynolds borrowed poses from the old masters and created social portraits in a new style that were deemed fresh and modern, and yet dignified the status of the sitter. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2677
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Reynolds, Joshua
Date made: 1748
People: Edgcumbe, George
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Fund
Measurements: Frame: 1480 mm x 1224 mm x 105 mm;Overall: 37.2 kg;Painting: 1270 mm x 1015 mm
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