Warren Hastings was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in Anglo-Indian history of the 18th Century and can largely be credited with laying the foundations of British supremacy in India. His career began in the service of the East India Company in 1749 and by 1773 he had risen to become the first Governor-General of Bengal which, as the richest and most powerful of the Indian States, gave him significant influence across the whole of the Sub Continent. The political and commercial power of the East India Company gave its managers vast scope for personal gain and self-interest, and indeed many of Hastings' contemporaries were renowned for extracting as much wealth as quickly as possible and with the least benefit or regard for the many millions of Indians under their rule. Hastings stands out as one of the few who placed national interests, both British and Indian, above personal gain. He was determined to stamp out the corruption which was rife amongst the Anglo-Indian Nabobs and merchants and introduced laws and policies which respected native traditions and the authority of the local princes and maharajahs. He was not only a fair-minded, if at times stern, governor, but he was also a highly able financier who within a few years managed to turn around the ailing finances of the company and greatly increase the revenues returned to London. Furthermore he brought a period of peace and calm to the many warring states and factions and, importantly, quashed the imperial ambitions of France in India.
Unfortunately his policies, ambitions and manner did not always endear him to his contemporaries and he was constantly hounded by his jealous opponents in the Calcutta Council, the body through which he ruled. Hastings' leading opponent in India was Philip Francis, his deputy and subsequent successor, who, with Edmund Burke, the eminent statesman, managed to turn public opinion in London and in India against him. In 1787 Burke had Hastings impeached on twenty charges of embezzlement, fraud, abuse of power and cruelty. Hastings was recalled to London, in supposed disgrace the same year, and put on trial before the House of Lords with Burke, his arch enemy, as Chief Prosecutor. The trial lasted seven years but eventually only Burke had the will to persevere and by the end public and legal opinion had turned in Hastings' favour. He was finally exonerated of all charges but was never to return to India.
In April 1788, two months after his trial began, Hastings succeeded in purchasing the house and estate of Daylesford in Gloucestershire and at this low point of his career was able to fulfil a childhood ambition. Daylesford, the ancestral home of the Hastings family, had been sold in 1715 and as a boy Hastings had vowed to buy it back. Over the next thirty years Hastings is believed to have spent 60,000 (nearly six times the purchase price) creating a monument to his career and his ever expanding art collection. He employed the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell who was later to build for his own brother Sir Charles Cockerell (Surveyor to the East India Company) the onion-domed fantasy Sezincote House nearby. The collection of pictures which Hastings amassed included works by William Hodges, the first English artist to have worked in India; the great topographical painters of India and South East Asia, Thomas and William Daniell; Zoffany, who had met and worked for Hastings in Calcutta; and Tilly Kettle, who succeeded Zoffany as the main painter of the English Nabobs in India. Hastings also employed George Stubbs on many occasions including the Portrait of Warren Hastings on his celebrated Arabian, sold by Christie's on 23 June 1978 for £170,000. Furthermore he employed the cabinet makers Ince and Mayhew to supply him with furniture and textiles. No longer in public disgrace Hastings spent the last decades of his life in self-imposed but contented exile at Daylesford with his family and friends.
The house and contents were dispersed by his stepson, General Sir Charles Imhof, in 1853. The house and estate passed through the hands of various owners until its purchase in 1946 by the 2nd Viscount Rothermere. The house had fallen into a state of dilapidation but Rothermere spent considerable time and money restoring it to its former glory. He also acquired paintings and works of art connected with Hastings and India and from Hastings' own collection.
Abbot produced several autograph versions of this portrait including examples in the National Portrait Gallery, London (dateable to 1796), and in the Victoria Memorial Museum, Calcutta.