Portrait of a Gentleman, thought to be Henry Middleton (1717-1784)
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
“It is a powerful reminder of the relationship between America and England on the eve of the American Revolution.”
Oil on Canvas
30 ½ x 25 ½, 77.5 x 65 cm
By descent in the sitter’s family to Shrublands Park, Suffolk
This portrait of Henry Middleton, one of the most significant figures in colonial America, was painted by Benjamin West in about 1771. It is a powerful reminder of the relationship between America and England on the eve of the American Revolution. West, himself an American, had left the colonies and was forging a successful career for himself in England. He would later become President of the Royal Academy. Middleton, on the other hand, although from an English family, and with English estates of his own, was preparing for the coming break with Britain.
Henry Middleton was born in South Carolina, probably at his father’s plantation ‘The Oaks’ in Charleston, in 1717, and was educated in England. He held a number of high offices in America in the years preceding the Revolution. Much of his influence and local authority grew from his substantial wealth and landholdings, which included some 50,000 acres in South Carolina, together with about eight hundred slaves. However, Middleton was clearly a formidable intellect. He began his career as a Justice of the Peace, and soon became a member of the King’s Council in America. In 1745 he became a member of the South Carolina House of Commons, in which he was elected speaker on three occasions, while in 1755 he became commissioner of Native American affairs. He served in the last role with distinction during the 1760-1 war with the Cherokees.
In 1770 Middleton resigned his public offices. It is then that he is thought to have travelled to England, where this portrait would have been painted. Because no evidence has yet been found to prove Middleton’s arrival in England it has been suggested that the sitter here is his brother, William Middleton, who had settled permanently in England. Contradictory family accounts identify the sitter as both William and Henry, with, for example, the inventory drawn up by Rev Edmund Farrer opting for William. However, the larger, three quarter length version of this portrait by West, still in the possession of Middleton’s descendants, is currently on loan to Middleton Place, South Carolina, where it has been identified, and is displayed, as Henry.
It is in fact quite possible that Henry came to England in the early 1770s, for there is certainly a gap in his public record in America between 1770-3. Furthermore, two of Henry’s children, Arthur and Henry were also painted by West, in England, at the same time the present work was painted. Finally, and perhaps conclusively, a number of Henry Middleton’s items of clothing survive at Middleton Place. One of these items, a fine gold waistcoat and breeches decorated with floral emblems, can be seen in both versions West’s portrait.
Middleton seems by nature to have been a traditional loyalist and conservative. However, as with so many colonials, he became increasingly dismayed with London’s ham-fisted attempts to extend British authority in America. His voting of a subscription of £1500 to the English radical John Wilkes in 1769 not only displays a latent radicalism, but demonstrates how the desire for political freedom in America was not, at the outset, born out of a simple secessionist impulse, but out of a reasoned and enlightened belief in individual freedom for all Britons, whether in the England or America.
Such sentiments can be seen in the early American protests against rule from London. In 1774, for example, Middleton was elected a delegate of the First Continental Congress, which met to discuss the response to the so-called Intolerable Acts. The Acts had been passed in Westminster in response to growing unrest in the colonies, most notably the 1773 Boston Tea Party, and led to the further removal of colonial rights, and a transfer of direct power to London. The resolutions agreed by Middleton and his colleagues were at pains to stress their loyalty, but stressed that in return for their loyalty “his Majesty’s subjects in America are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain”.
Despite being one of the leaders of the American opposition, Middleton was himself not a supporter of immediate independence, and remained loyal to the crown. In October 1774 he was elected President of the First Continental Congress, and under his control was passed the Petition of Congress to King George III. The document, in accordance to Middleton’s belief, was a curious blend of strenuous protest mixed with equally strenuous declarations of loyalty. A telling paragraph runs; “We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. We wish not a diminution of the prerogative, nor do we solicit the grant of any new right in our favor. Your royal authority over us and our connexion with Great-Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavor to support and maintain”.
Events soon took a more radical turn. At this juncture, and as both sides prepared for military conflict, Henry Middleton resigned from the Second Congress in 1776, ostensibly citing ill health. He was succeeded by his son, Arthur Middleton (whom West had also painted), who then went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. Henry, however, still believed in effective self-government, and remained active in South Carolina politics, even becoming a member of the new state senate in 1779 during the War of Independence, at the outset of which he had established a form of private currency to overcome the lack of money in circulation. After the surrender of Charlestown in 1780 Middleton appears to have accepted British rule, and yet, it is not clear if this was under duress, for he certainly did not suffer any of the reprisals faced by Loyalists after the final British defeat in 1783. Middleton Place, for example, Middleton’s exquisite home and ornamental garden, survived the war intact. It still survives today, although the main portion of the house was destroyed during the Civil War, and is one of America’s best known historical monuments.