Francis Basset of Tehidy Park, Cornwall, was born on 9 August 1757, the son of Francis Basset and his wife Margaret. Basset attended Eton College and later King's College Cambridge, where he remained for only a short while before embarking on his Grand Tour in 1777. Upon his return to England the following year the young Basset was drawn back to Cornwall where he served as lieutenant-colonel of the North Devon militia, and led Cornish miners to Plymouth to fortify the port against a Franco-Spanish invasion that gathered there as part of the European showing against England in the American Revolutionary War. These deeds were rewarded with a baronetcy in 1779. During the 1780s Basset entered Parliament as an M.P. for Penryn and in 1796 Pitt created him Baron de Dunstanville and later Baron Basset. His fortune was derived from the numerous mines that lay within sight of his mansion at Tehidy.
Basset sat for the present portrait in March and early April 1777, after his arrival at King's College. Reynolds had painted him on two earlier occasions, commemorating his departure from Eton College in 1776 (Mannings, nos. 131, 132).
While in Rome, Basset also employed Pompeo Batoni to paint him. The superb full-length portrait, replete with the Castel Sant'Angelo and Saint Peter's Basilica, was part of an ill-fated cargo that departed from Livorno in 1778 and was seized by the French at Málaga. The contents of the ship were sold off and Batoni's portrait entered the collection of Charles III of Spain (now Madrid, Prado; E.P. Bowron, Pompeo Batoni, Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2007, pp. 76-78).