Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 91 x 67.5 cm
Inv. no. P561
A notorious rake, courtier and confidant of the Prince of Wales (later George IV; 1762–1830), the 4th Duke of Queensberry (1724–1810) ‘pursued pleasure under every shape’. His dissolute lifestyle made him the focus of much press attention, in particular the caricaturists James Gillray(1756–1815) and Robert Dighton (1752–1814), who came to refer to him in their satirical work as ‘Old Q’.
Despite numerous amorous liaisons, Queensberry never married, though he was widely accepted to be the father of Maria Fagnani (1771–1856), the wife of the 3rd Marquess of Hertford (1777–1842), a founder of the Wallace Collection. One of the wealthiest people of his day, he left a large proportion of his fortune to Fagnani on his death (presumably along with this portrait), which greatly enriched the Seymour-Conway family.
Queensberry commissioned Reynolds to paint this portrait at the height of the artist’s popularity. Costing 22 ½ guineas, the three-quarter length portrait represents the duke dressed in his sumptuous peer’s robes, made up of red velvet trimmed with white ermine fur flecked with black, illuminated by a strong light at the top right corner of the canvas. Among the shadow of the left-hand side of the canvas, his coronet rests on a table, against which he leans.
Reynolds made five appointments with Queensberry between June and July 1759, during which the artist would have made sketches of his sitter that could be worked up later. Given the demand for Reynolds, and his large studio, it is likely that the drapery and coronet in the painting were the responsibility of his assistants. They would have underpainted the drapery in pink-grey before Reynolds applied red lake and made final adjustments, including to some of the black flecks in the ermine. These can be seen beneath the white paint, which has become more transparent with age.
The collar of the Order of the Thistle was added to the painting after 1763, when Queensberry was made a knight of the Scottish order. Tonally, the collar is distinct from the rest of the painting (particularly its gold links, which do not correspond with the gold seen elsewhere in the painting), perhaps suggesting that it was added by someone other than Reynolds or his workshop.
The pigments Reynolds used in this painting were experimental, meaning they were unstable and have deteriorated over time. As a result, the portrait now looks very different to when it was first made. For example, the red lake used in Queensberry’s face has faded, leaving him with a pallid complexion. Similarly, the dark background to the painting has a yellow-green tone but would originally have been much closer to grey.
Some of these changes would have happened within a few years of the painting’s commission, and it is possible Queensberry would have returned it to Reynolds for restoration. The unpredictable nature of the Reynolds’s pigments garnered much contemporary criticism, which might explain his exchange of red lake for the more durable vermillion in the mid-1770s.
Reynolds recorded in 1759 that he was to order a ‘rich frame with an earl’s coronet’ to go with this painting, which would appear to suggest that its current frame is a later replacement, likely dating to the 19th century.
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry ('Old Q') as Earl of March', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 6.