National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 17, 1971

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Chandos, Marlborough and Kneller: 
Painting and "Protest" in the Age of Queen Anne

by Douglas Stewart

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

On 2 January 1712, Chandos informed his agent that "The Duke of Marlborough's Picture is taken down & will actually be sent to London this week - in order to be copied, as soon as this is done it shall be delivered to Mr Frombter [ ,]". (18) The purpose of the copy and the meaning of the background figures are both revealed in a letter of 12 April from Chandos to the Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate nephew of Marlborough and himself one of the great captains of the age.

It is some time ago since Mr Stratford acquainted Me with Your Grace's Desire to have a Copy of the Picture I have of your Illustrious Relation the Duke of Marlborough - I have been under no small Concern that it was not in my Power to obey yr Commands Sooner but ye Painter who I was willing shd copy it (being ye best hand for ye work in England) having been for Some time ill, I was obliged to defer it, till his Recovery put him in a condition of being able to finish it: it was drawn just after his disgrace, upon ye Alteration of ye Ministry towards the latter End of the late Queen's Reign, wch was ye Occasion of sr Godfrey Kneller's Fancy in placing ye Fig", res of Brittania Lugens [weeping] & the Eagle drooping in the sid...

Chandos' letter thus makes the meaning of the female and the eagle quite clear. They are Britannia and the Eagle of Victory mourning the loss of the leadership of the man who had won England so many victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. Their presence is, in fact, an open "protest" against the dismissal of Marlborough by Queen Anne and her new Tory ministry in January 1712, an event that, as Marlborough's descendant wrote, "astounded Europe. It was everywhere, even in France, regarded as a prodigy of ingratitude by a sovereign towards a servant and subject." (20) The fact that Chandos states that it was the painter's "fancy" indicates that it was Kneller's idea, but undoubtedly Chandos, as a good Whig and a life-long friend of the Duke, heartily approved.  

Interestingly enough, Kneller had shown his Whiggish views in paint in another "portrait" of Marlborough just a few years before. This was a commission from Queen Anne for a large picture that she planned to present to the Marlboroughs, to be hung at the upper end of the Long Gallery at Blenheim. In the event, because of the rupture between the Marlboroughs and the Queen, the full-scale picture was never begun, and only the modello for it survives, at Blenheim (fig. 5).

Kneller's own description of the work, which identifies the figures in it, has also been preserved. (21) "The Duke of Marlborough", he says, "desired that no person should be represented by the life except the Queen's Majesty. But that the whole picture should be Allegoricall." The central figure is the Queen, presenting to a kneeling "warlike Vigorous Figure representing Military Merit a Model of Blenheim drawn on paper." They are attended by various allegorical and mythological figures, all set in an open-topped pavilion. Above the main group, reclining on clouds, 'to Evidence the truth of this representation Apollo inlighteneth the whole and appears with his Harp and Rays commanding Fame with his lighted Torch to proclaim and Signifie the same to the Whole Universe. Under Apollo his love of Truth is Signified by three boys holding a Serpent in a Circle, the Emblem of Eternity."

According to Vertue, Kneller was "much commended for his skill" in the execution of this work, which later belonged to that discriminating collector, Dr. Mead. (22) Enlarged to scale it would have provided an effective piece of semi-illusionist decoration for the Blenheim Gallery. There is a certain puckish humour about the dumpy little figures. And there is additional amusement in a piece of visual irony that neither Kneller nor his contemporaries mention, probably because it was obvious to them.

In the background at the left are a number of trophies: a suit of armour and several flags, one of which is decorated with the sun and the inscription NEC PLURIBUS IMPAR (not unequal [even to the sun])- the personal emblem and motto of Louis XIV, which generations of Englishmen and Europeans had known and dreaded. But only a short distance above is Apollo the Sun God, commanding Fame to proclaim the truth of Marlborough 's glorious victories over the French king. Louis is hoist on his own petard and the falsity of his pretensions exposed!

An earlier criticism of Louis XIV occurs in a letter from Kneller to Samuel Pepys in 1690, in which he refers scornfully to the French sculptor Jean Cavalier as having been born under "a slavish Guverment". (23) Kneller's dislike of Louis may also have derived from personal experience: he had painted the French king in 1648-85 for Charles II. But more likely it stemmed primarily from his strong Whig political views. The fact that he, the Principal Painter to the crown, expressed these views in paint in Queen Anne's reign, at one point openly criticizing royal policy, testifies to his independence. It is also an indication of the diminished influence of the English crown by this date. One cannot imagine a court artist of Charles II's time "pro-testing" in this way with impunity, let alone one at the court of Louis XIV! (24)

However, it is interesting to note how close in spirit Kneller's pictorial satire against Louis XIV is to the mocking prayer, by an anonymous versifier, that apparently circulated in the French court in 1708:

Our father who art at Versail1es, whose name is no longer hallowed, whose kingdom is no longer large, give us our daily bread which is lacking everywhere! Pardon our enemies who defeat us and not our generals who allow it to happen...) (25)

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