The sitter in the present portrait, Edward Wortly Montagu (1713-1776), was born in London on 16 May 1713, the only son and eldest child of Edward Wortly Montagu (1678-1761), an MP and diplomat, and his wife Lady Mary (1689-1762), an author. The younger Edward led a life of ill-repute, running away from school, entering into a secret marriage with a much-older woman of ill-repute (an arrangement that was quickly hushed by his parents), and spending lavish amounts on drink and women. He received an allowance from his parents, though one significantly lower than his status would suggest, as they were obliged to continue payments to Edward's first wife and two other women. He was even accused at one point of collaboration with known criminals and highwaymen, and spent a period of time in debtor's prison.
Though he distinguished himself in service during the War of the Austrian Succession, and was eventually elected MP for Huntingdonshire in 1747 with the help of his cousin John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, Edward passed much of his adult life engaged in criminal ventures. He spent time in Paris where he was suspected of gathering intelligence against England, entered into an extortion business in Paris, and bigamously but briefly married his second wife Elizabeth Ashe in 1751. Despite an effort to regain his father's favor with the publication in 1759 of the well-respected Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republicks, an effort commended by scholarly elder Wortly Montagu, when the latter died in January 1761 he left the majority of his fortune to Edward's sister and her husband, Lord and Lady Bute. Outraged at the slight, Edward spent the rest of his life abroad, traveling around Europe and the Middle East, and marrying a third wife, Caroline Dormer Feroe, after meeting her in Alexandria and persuading her he had news of the death of her husband the Danish Consul. Following a sojourn in Constantinople, Edward declared himself a Muslim and began dressing in Turkish garb, as he appears in the present portrait. He eventually settled in Padua, dying on 29 April 1776 of an infection. Edward left his extensive library to his son Fortunatus, born Massoud, to a Muslim mother. A skilled linguist and noted graphologist, he was also eccentric, brilliant, reckless and dishonest. A three-quarter length portrait by Romney, a version of the present portrait, is in Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
The present portrait is mentioned in a number of books by Romney, though references to it are somewhat contradictory. In his Life of George Romney, William Hayley, Esq. states that it was painted in Venice: 'Romney painted an admirable head of him in his Eastern garb, and in such a style of art as clearly proves that the painter had studied intensely and successfully, the celebrated colourists of the Venetian School. Indeed his head of Montague might easily be mistaken for a Venetian picture. It was a favourite work of the artist, and he long retained it as a study for his own use, but after permitting a small print to be taken from it as decoration to Seward's Anecdotes, he presented the original to a friend. He had painted a large copy from it, which with other exquisite portraits by the same master, is ranked among the choicest of modern ornaments of that magnificent and interesting old Mansion, Warwick Castle'.
Arthur Chamberlain, however, who published a biography of the artist in 1910, suggests that the present portrait was in fact a later version after an original half-length: 'In Venice...[Romney] painted a half-length portrait of his new friend in Eastern garb...this portrait was sold to the Earl of Warwick for 50 gns. on the understanding that he was allowed to make a copy of it before parting with it...Romney also made a copy of the head in crayons "with a view", says his son, "to ascertain how far he should be able to fix that fugitive manner of painting"...This crayon study, to John Romney's indignation, was given to Hayley's mother...[and] may be the head lent by Sir John Milbanke, Bart., V.C., to the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1907, no. 138, a circular canvas, 21 x 18½ in.'
Lastly, Lord Ronald Sutherland, in his Life of Romney, quotes Hayley as saying 'The only painting I could find at Eartham - Collection of Gower - from Romney's brush was the turbaned head of Edward W. Montagu, taken from the half-length which he painted when he met that eccentric Englishman at Venice, now at Warwick Castle' (p. 87).