Henry Weigall Junior (1829-1925)
The Marquess of Exeter, a friend and political ally of Disraeli, commissioned this portrait to commemorate Disraeli's achieving the Treaty of Berlin...
This triumphant portrait of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield crystallises the Prime Minister’s public image and reputation at the zenith of his political career. Painted to commemorate the Treaty of Berlin, it also offers a psychologically penetrating record of Disraeli which predates Millais’ famous rendition by three years, ranking this painting amongst the most important visual records of the sitter.
Organised in the summer of 1878, in the hope of bringing about peace between Russia and Turkey whilst maintaining the balance of power amongst European nations, delegates from Britain and the continent went to Berlin with the intention of averting a large-scale military conflict. Despite his age and failing health Disraeli, accompanied by Lord Salisbury as Foreign Secretary, travelled abroad as the British representative, facilitating conferences with the German chancellor and assisting in securing relations amongst nations. Six weeks of negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Berlin which succeeded in foiling Russia’s imperial designs on the crumbling Turkish Empire and securing British interests abroad.
Having successfully achieved ‘Peace with honour’, the Prime Minister returned on the 16th July 1878 after gaining Cyprus for the Queen. In England Beaconsfield’s mission of diplomacy was heralded as a triumph in European peace-making at a time when relations between nations were becoming increasingly fragile. Enthusiastic crowds lined the route to Downing Street upon his return and popular sentiment painted the Prime Minister as a national hero.
Queen Victoria, who invited him to her residence at Osborne House offered him a dukedom which he refused instead for the Order of the Garter. The Marquess of Exeter, a friend and political ally of Disraeli, chose to commemorate the event by commissioning this image, a later version of which still hangs in the Bow Room at Burghley House together with the drum table on which the Treaty was drafted.
Just as the portrait tells a public story in its political commemoration of the sitter, so it also relates a private one through the history of its commission. By examining the strands which tied the artist, sitter and patron together Weigall’s work provides a window into the social world in which the Prime Minister moved in the later years of his career. Disraeli’s relationships with his political associates were not confined to the Houses of Parliament. For much of the 1870s Disraeli regarded as personal friends the Marquesses of Salisbury and Exeter. Letters from the Prime Minister and his contemporaries detail many sociable occasions spent together at Hatfield House during the latter part of the decade. Lady Rose Weigall’s letters recount tales of dinner parties, sing-a-longs and post-election celebrations. Lord Beaconsfield, she writes, was not only a frequent visitor to Hatfield House but ‘entirely devoted’ to the family.
Henry Weigall was another to hold a place in the Hatfield House circle. His wife, formerly Lady Rose Fane, daughter of the Earl of Westmorland was a childhood friend of the future 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and assisted in securing her husband’s position amongst this elite coterie, through their marriage in 1866.
Although Weigall had already distinguished himself as a portraitist to fashionable society, having undertaken commissions to paint the Prince and Princess of Wales (1864-1865) and the Duke of Wellington (1851-1854) as well as members of the Albemarle, Abergavenny, Norfolk, Bury and Northumberland families, it has been suggested that the Salisburys were responsible for facilitating the artist’s introduction to the Prime Minister. Between 1878 and 1880 Weigall’s account books reveal a series of commissions from Salisbury’s cousin, the Marquess of Exeter. Among them in late 1878 is an order for a ‘half length to be painted of the Earl of Beaconsfield’ which would appear to be our portrait and following shortly thereafter for a similar likeness of Salisbury.
Weigall’s trip to Hatfield House in autumn 1879 is documented by his wife, as is the fact that the Marquess sat to the artist at this date. Unlike the majority of his artistic contemporaries, Weigall painted the images of his sitters from the perspective of a friend and social equal and with his ability to move within the ranks of the elite, Weigall became the preferred portraitist of the ‘Hatfield House set’ during the height of their influence.
Weigall’s portrait was one of the last painted of the Prime Minister. His health, exacerbated by bronchitis and asthma had begun to deteriorate rapidly by 1880. Shortly before his death in 1881 Disraeli in his weakened state sat to Sir John Everett Millais for the production of what may be considered to be the most recognisable likeness of the Prime Minister, currently hanging at the National Portrait Gallery. The artist records his sitter as being so ill that ‘The task of standing in the posing attitude was at the time too much for his strength, so all the could be done was to paint the head in and make a rough outline of his figure....’ The pose affected by Disraeli in this work is a readily distinguishable one and strikingly similar to Weigall’s chosen posture for this portrait. Given the sitter’s poor state of health and his inability to remain standing it is entirely possible that Millais may have gained inspiration from Weigall’s earlier work, especially as it is known that he utilised photographic images to augment his sitter’s likeness.
In many senses, Weigall’s work exemplifies a philosophy prevalent amongst Victorian painters at the time: that a portrait should strive to represent the sitter’s true character. Here, Disraeli is portrayed in the final years of his political career. Weigall captures his sitter’s contemplative face, his characteristically droopy eyes and an expression reflective of the statesman’s even temperament and experience. The Prime Minister is unashamedly depicted here as an ageing man wearing a visage marked by hard work and encroaching exhaustion. Although the circumstances surrounding Disraeli’s sittings for the artist are uncertain, Weigall is said to have worked his portraits in advance, getting ‘... a picture into a very forward state before he requires a sitting...’. Whether or not the artist actually painted Disraeli while at Burghley House is unknown, though clearly his intentions were to portray him there as the appearance of Marquess of Exeter’s red sofa, panelled walls and ‘drum table’ indicate. Equally, Weigall’s artistic process and compositional intentions can be traced through the wisps of pentimenti visible around the sitter’s form. Weigall produced a second version of this portrait in 1880 (currently in the collection of the Marquess of Exeter at Burghley House) and a third head and shoulders for the 1st Marquess of Lincolnshire in the same year.
It was the artist’s desire to have this portrait appear in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1880, though unfortunately for an unspecified reason, his wishes went unfulfilled.