Zoomable Image of Portrait miniature of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG

Portrait miniature of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG

John Smart (1741-1811)

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Watercolour on ivory


Oval, 2½ in (63 mm) high


Private collection, Worcestershire


Signed and dated: ‘JS 1786 I’ (for India)

This example, painted a year after Smart arrived in India, constitutes the first portrait of Cornwallis by Smart...

This hitherto unrecorded portrait miniature of Lord Cornwallis can be regarded as one of John Smart’s most important commissions. There are several recorded miniatures by Smart of Cornwallis, although they are all dated between 1791 and 1794.[1] This example, painted a year after Smart arrived in India, constitutes the first portrait of Cornwallis by Smart. Depicting the sitter in the dress coat, or ‘frock’, of a lieutenant-general, with the blue sash and silver star of the Order of the Garter just visible, the miniature must have been commissioned and executed between 22 August and 3 September 1786. At that time, Cornwallis was in Madras city – where Smart lived and worked – during a short break in his journey by sea from Britain to Calcutta, where he arrived on 12 September 1786 to take up the post of Governor-General of India.[2]

Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Earl and 1st Marquess Cornwallis, was one of Britain’s leading soldier-statesmen of the late eighteenth century. In 1756, after education at Eton, he became an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards. After brief service as a volunteer with the Prussians in 1758, he fought at Minden in 1759 as ADC to Lord Granby, second-in-command of the British forces in Germany. He obtained a captaincy in the 85th Foot after Minden and in 1761 was made lieutenant-colonel of the 12th Foot, which he commanded with distinction in the final battles of the Seven Years War.

Cornwallis was an MP from 1760, but took his seat in the House of Lords in 1762, on inheriting his father’s title. A principled politician, he consistently opposed repressive taxation against the American colonies but when the American War for Independence began, he volunteered for service in America. Promoted major-general in 1775, he sailed in early 1776 as a local lieutenant-general ‘(in America only)’ in command of seven regiments of Foot, among which was the 33rd, of which he had been made colonel in 1766.

For the first two years of the American war, Cornwallis’s military fortunes paralleled those of the British forces: battles were won and cities occupied but no really decisive blow was struck against the rebellious colonists and George Washington evaded capture. The entry of France into the war in 1778 significantly altered the naval and military balance of power, leading Cornwallis – by that time a substantive lieutenant-general and second-in-command in America – to conclude that the southern American ports needed to be denied to the French, who might otherwise land troops there. That strategy was implemented in 1780, with some initial success, but encouraged the British to over-extend their operations into Virginia with the intention of establishing a major naval base at Yorktown. French naval superiority and British naval over-extension, together with an almost complete failure in communications, led to Cornwallis’s army being trapped at Yorktown in 1781, where its surrender after a brief siege effectively destroyed the British government’s will to continue the war.

That Cornwallis was not held responsible for Yorktown was signified by the government’s offer to him of the governor-generalship of India on two occasions between 1782 and 1785; his acceptance of the post in 1786 was rewarded by election his appointment as a Knight of the Garter and accompanied by the granting to him of plenipotentiary powers. In his first term as governor-general, he successfully undertook the joint tasks of reducing corruption in government and stabilising the revenues of Bengal as well as conducting a successful campaign in Madras against Tipu Sultan of Mysore; his success in India was marked by his being created a marquess in 1792.

Returning to Britain in 1793, he was promoted general, being appointed master-general of the ordnance in 1795 and tasked with the defence of Britain in the face of a French invasion threat.

In 1793, as colonel of the 33rd Foot – then stationed in Ireland, Cornwallis accepted into his regiment a young man, then aged 24 and with no active service experience, who would transcend even Cornwallis as a soldier-statesman of the next generation and who would gain his first active service experience with the 33rd, in Flanders in 1794. With effect from 30 April 1793, Captain The Hon. Arthur Wesley became major in the 33rd; as from 30 September 1793, that major was promoted lieutenant-colonel in Cornwallis’s regiment. The rest is history (Cat. 27).

In 1798, upon the outbreak of a rebellion in Ireland, he was appointed lord lieutenant and commander-in-chief there; he remained in Ireland until 1801 to oversee the passing of the Act of Union but failed in his attempts to achieve Catholic emancipation. Later in 1801, he was sent to France to negotiate the Treaty of Amiens during what proved to be only an eighteen-month truce with the French. In 1805, at a time of crisis in India, he agreed to return as governor-general but died in October that year, shortly after his arrival, and was buried outside Ghazipur, near Benares by the Ganges.

Charles 1st Marquess Cornwallis was born an aristocrat in an age of patronage and parliamentary corruption. He was a dutiful and loyal soldier and honest government servant and may justly be regarded as a predecessor of Britain’s Imperial proconsuls of the next century.

John Smart produced some of his most accomplished work during his ten years in India. His detailed anatomical knowledge combined with the fineness of his brushstrokes, generated distinctive, almost photographic, portraits of his sitters. Smart would have painted Cornwallis several times due to his status as a key military figure in his day.

[1] The present work pre-dates the 1791 portrait of Cornwallis that appeared at Christie’s, London, 27 & 28 November 2012, lot 393, then described as Smart’s ‘earliest portrait of the sitter’.

[2] Cornwallis travelled to India in 1786 aboard the East India Company’s packet ‘Swallow’ (Captain Robert Anderson). The dates between which Cornwallis was ashore in Madras city are taken from the captain’s journal of the voyage: British Library [IOR/L/MAR/385D]. Smart did not leave Madras in 1786 and Cornwallis did not return to the city, or the Madras presidency, during that year.

[3] The London Gazette, 13542, 29 June 1793, p. 555 and 13596, 30 September 1793, p. 1052

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