Close inspection under a microscope reveals the regiment of this sitter; each of his buttons is emblazed with delicate numbers - 91 – in reference to the 91st Regiment.

General Gabriel Gordon served in the 91st (Princess Louise's Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Gordon rose swiftly through the military ranks soon after he joined in 1781; he became Lieutenant three years later in 1784, Captain by 1794, Major in 1800 and later on 9th November 1846 he became a General.

Close inspection under a microscope reveals the regiment of this sitter; each of his buttons is emblazed with delicate numbers - 91 – in reference to the 91st Regiment. Raised in 1794, this Scottish infantry served until the 1881 Army reforms, when it was merged into Princess Louise’s (Argyll and Sutherland) Highlanders.[1] Samuel Shelley’s regimental reference is so subtle that is almost invisible to the naked eye; the artist’s delicate handling of Gordon’s buttons and epaulette exemplifies Shelley’s understanding of his beloved watercolour medium.

This portrait may have been painted in 1803, on the occasion of Gordon’s return to Jamaica to command and superintend British settlement, after he...

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General Gabriel Gordon served in the 91st (Princess Louise's Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Gordon rose swiftly through the military ranks soon after he joined in 1781; he became Lieutenant three years later in 1784, Captain by 1794, Major in 1800 and later on 9th November 1846 he became a General.

Close inspection under a microscope reveals the regiment of this sitter; each of his buttons is emblazed with delicate numbers - 91 – in reference to the 91st Regiment. Raised in 1794, this Scottish infantry served until the 1881 Army reforms, when it was merged into Princess Louise’s (Argyll and Sutherland) Highlanders.[1] Samuel Shelley’s regimental reference is so subtle that is almost invisible to the naked eye; the artist’s delicate handling of Gordon’s buttons and epaulette exemplifies Shelley’s understanding of his beloved watercolour medium.

This portrait may have been painted in 1803, on the occasion of Gordon’s return to Jamaica to command and superintend British settlement, after he was permitted leave of absence for twenty years of service with his regiment. The present miniature offers an intimate exchange between sitter and viewer and this bust length composition somewhat obscures the fact that Gordon was ‘6 ft. 5 ½ in’ and incidentally ‘always spoke with a Scots accent’.[2] Gordon later commissioned a portrait by John Watson Gordon (1788–1864), currently in the collection of the Perth & Kinross Council, which depicts the General on a comparatively grandiose scale.[3]

The artist of this portrait, Samuel Shelley, was born in London and lived in the capital for the duration of his working life, following a relatively conventional route into his chosen profession. After winning the much-coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, he entered the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. Whilst exhibiting at the Royal Academy between 1774-1804, Shelley became an important voice in the history of watercolour painting in the eighteenth century. A founding member of the first watercolour society in 1805, he believed that watercolours should be given their own forum and exhibition space in order to be properly appreciated. Before the formation of such a society, watercolours could only be shown next to oils at the conventional exhibition spaces of the Society of Artists or Royal Academy.

Shelley lived his entire life in London, and this portrait was painted whilst he was living at 6 George Street, Hanover Square, where he died in 1808.

[1] https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/91st-princess-louises-argyllshire-highlanders-regiment-foot [accessed on 14.04.2021].

[2] O, Skelton and J.M. Bulloch, The House of Gordon: A biographical muster roll of officers in the navies and armies of Britain, Europe, America and in the Jacobite Risings. Vol. 3. (Aberdeen 1903-1912) p.104. Available: https://digital.nls.uk/79782929 [accessed on 14.04.2021].

[3] Perth & Kinross Council collection. Accession number: FA92/78.

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500 Years of British Art