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Posing For Posterity: Pompeo Batoni and The Grand Tour


Image courtesy of Berkeley Castle


'The portrait hung many feet tall above the fireplace in the Long Drawing Room at Berkeley Castle, commanding the attention of all who gathered below.

It had been painted by the Italian artist, Pompeo Batoni, whom Lord Berkeley had discovered on the Grand Tour. He'd commissioned the work at his coming of age. It showed a handsome stripling, tall, not inelegant, in the dress of the South Gloucesters: scarlet coat with royal blue facings, gold embroidered waistcoat over a well-fed paunch, pale buckskins and white hose, the left calf laddered several inches. A landscape setting among the ruins of antiquity reflected mossy shades upon his lower garments. The pose was relaxed, even dilatory. While the left hand indicated the fate of Imperial Rome in the distance, the high-bred forehead turned away to the reassuring past, so that its owner was looking sideways on. His right hand gripped a three-cornered hat which he might just have swept off in gallant salutation of some damsel he hoped to impress. A chestnut pointer was looking up, unsure how to construe the pose, for his master’s gaze had no truck with the deed of the hand.' Berkeley Series

At the height of the Georgian era, there was no Mario Testino, Patrick Lichfield or Cecil Beaton. Discoveries made by pioneers of photography, like Henry Fox Talbot and Louis-Jacques de Guerre, were almost a century away. Remarkable though their techniques were, it is doubtful that the flower of the nobility, who sought mementoes of their sojourn in the cultural hotspots of Europe, would have been flattered by any other than a full-blown portrait by a skilled artist who had seized on the opportunity of bringing his name to fame.

Enter Pompeo Batoni, son of a Luccan goldsmith. For him, this was merely a lucrative sideline, since his preference was for vast canvases of biblical and mythological themes. He is said to have had a knack of capturing and enhancing the sitter's self-image, perhaps inspired by the Italian propensity for turning life into theatre. Perceptive observers may also catch subtle hints as to the character in each portrait.

Among Batoni's subjects was Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley, who had inherited his title at the age of ten, a fact which did nothing to check his ego. Fred learnt early on that the world was there to serve him. Boredom was enemy number one. His mother, the former Elizabeth Drax, no pillar of virtue herself, had married the notorious 1st Earl of Nugent. When her eldest son had done his utmost to challenge Eton, she packed him off to Turin Academy, an institution designed to round off the education of young aristocrats and launch them into wider horizons. Marriage to her second husband fractured (his third!) and Lady Nugent took herself off to Paris where she persuaded Fred to join her. Despite protestations that he would tolerate no other than the single life, she hoped that a suitable bride would materialise. It was imperative to provide for the succession. Such responsibility might go far to tame him.

Of particular interest in Turin was the recently founded Academy of Sciences. Fred was no scholar - hunting, wenching, gambling and boxing were his favourite pursuits - but throughout his life he maintained a steady interest in scientific discovery and new inventions. His children were among the first to be inoculated against smallpox after Dr Jenner's in-depth research and successful trial with a young Berkeley patient named James Phipps. Turin, with its Alpine views, opulent gridded streets, civilised sanitation and developed highways, was naturally on the agenda of many venturing the Grand Tour. To the dismay of the British Treasury, an alarming number of Fred's contemporaries were eager to squander fortunes abroad and have their rite of passage recorded by the acclaimed Signor Batoni. On his twenty-first birthday, Fred marked the occasion by following the fashion.

As can be seen, the artist was especially fond of a red!



Seated, Sir Sampson Gideon, who became Baron Eardley, having married the sister of John Eardley Wilmot, a Master in Chancery, whose scandalous wife sought refuge with the infamous cleric figuring in the Berkeley Series. We may imagine that he is showing off a miniature of Maria Wilmot to his companion.




Thomas Taylour, 1st Marquis of Headfort, represented Kells in the Irish House of Commons from 1776 - 1790 and was later MP for Longford Borough, then Meath. Harriette Wilson, the daredevil courtesan and associate of William Fitzhardinge Berkeley, the Earl's eldest son, was intimately connected with his brother, Augustus, and tells this amusing anecdote concerning Lord Headfort, one of her former lovers.


"Send all your letters to me at Brighton, under cover to Headfort,' I used to say to everybody who could not frank. Headfort, having a packet of letters to bring up to me every morning from the Pavilion to Prospect House, which was the dignified appellation my landlord bestowed on my humble cottage at Brighton, I requested he would rap twice only, according to the etiquette observed by postmen.

"Come upstairs, my dear Marquis," said I, "Take off your great coat. Tell me, who do you make love to now? For it cannot be supposed a gay deceiver like yourself can be satisfied with old Mrs. Massey all your life, although that crim. con. affair of yours did cost you so much money."

"Oh, my dear child,' answered poor Headfort, "it is more than ten years since Mrs. Massey has cut me dead, as her lover."


"Don't you know, my dear, that she has turned Methodist, and thinks it wicked.'

"But then, it is still lucky for you, that her conscience permits her to make use of your house, purse, equipage and private boxes!"

"Yes,' said Headfort, "she still does me that honour, for which I pay very dear, particularly on a Sunday, when she reads me Letters from the Dead to the Living, till I am almost tempted to wish her own signature at the bottom of them."

"With whom, pray, do you console yourself?"

"I have not had a call, my dear, for the last five years."

"It will come on you when you shall be born again, by the assistance of Mrs. Massey 's prayers!"




John Chetwynd-Talbot, 1st Earl Talbot of Hensol, in whose household Mary Cole and her sister, Susan, sought employment (with far-reaching consequences!)

Mary’s eyes smarted from the heat of the kitchen fire where they sat darning hose while the brawn pies baked and Tabitha searched the market for fresh artichokes.
“His lordship has a certain look in the eye,” Susan smirked at some private joke as she held her needle up to the light for threading. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was in thrall to my charms!”
“Surely he wouldn’t tumble one of his own chambermaids!”
“Wouldn’t he! If half the whispers I’ve heard be true, he’s aiming in every particular to fill his Uncle’s shoes.”




William Gordon of Fyvie, British Army Officer and MP for Woodstock, Oxfordshire, supported by the 4th Duke of Marlborough who later obtained for him the office of Groom of the Bedchamber to George III. His nephew, Lord George Gordon, was the instigator of the Gordon Riots in which Mrs Fitzherbert's second husband was killed. Gordon eventually married his housekeeper, Isobel Black, by whom he had a son.




Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, British Prime Minister from 1770 - 1782. When under pressure to relax an embargo on Irish trade, he became the target of Gordon Rioters and was forced to resign the same year the Cole family lost its breadwinner, the Gloucester butcher and innkeeper, William Cole. North took responsibility for the loss of Britain's American Colonies after the Yorktown defeat. He had made a generous and heroic attempt to persuade the U.S. to sign a peace treaty, but outright Independence was their plan.



Edward Howard, died prematurely at the age of 23. His uncle was the 9th Duke of Norfolk, who fought in the Jacobite Uprising of 1715 and escaped with his life after being brought to trial for high treason.The nephew was rumoured to be marrying the Hon. Frances Dillon, daughter of Henry Dillon, 11th Viscount Dillon of Costello-Gallin. She married Sir William Jerningham, 6th Bt, and plays a role in the Berkeley Series. The Norfolk family was intricately meshed with the Berkeleys and the Talbots. 



Lest readers should gain the impression that Pompeo Batoni was solely preoccupied with male portraits, here's one of an Unknown Lady as Diana, the Huntress. (Possibly Margaret Stuart, Lady Hippisley.) It was a subject Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley turned over often in his mind. A stag was the cause of his death in 1810. Here, in considerable turmoil, he prepares for a duel with a deadly adversary:

'The sun’s hemisphere began to smelt the edges of the horizon and send darting beams through the trees. A pheasant waddled across the misty track ahead as if daring him to pursue. Actaeon, he thought. (It was forty years since his academic days.) The hunter become the hunted.

His musings were interrupted by a heavy crackle in the brushwood. A patch of hide resolved itself into the finest heraldic beast he had ever seen, with antlers like blasted oaks, its proud head surrounded by the radiance of the morning. The stag gazed at him, imperially aloof, awaiting homage. Berkeley stood stock still. It was the start of the rutting season and he was not so foolish as to ignore that. Yet it was not fear that inspired him, it was a deliquescence of muscle and bone, stronger than for a covetable woman, at beholding such a creature in its perfect element. It listened, pawed the turf, then flexed its neck and vanished between the nankeen boughs.' Berkeley Series




Apollo Magazine
A Web of English History
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Italia! Italy, travel and life
The Berkeley Series
The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson (Vol 1)
The National Gallery
The New York Times
Vogue (Italy)
Yale University Library Images


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