Gainsborough's magnificent full-length portrait of Sir Charles Gould was commissioned by the Society of Equitable Assurance in 1782. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783, it has remained in the collection of that Society ever since.
Sir Charles Gould (1726-1806), an exceptionally able barrister, was appointed Judge Advocate-General in 1771, a position in which he distinguished himself. He was also a long-serving and highly successful President of The Society of Equitable Assurance from 1773 until 1806. The Society, which had been founded in London in 1762, had pioneered the life-assurance business in London and Gould presided over a period of rapid change and expansion. The decision to commission a portrait of their President from Gainsborough, made in a meeting of the Society's General Court on 17 January 1782, was a reflection of the gratitude and esteem that was felt for Gould's leadership and the success that it had brought. The resulting portrait was to hang in a prominent position in the Society's great Court Room.
Gould's highflying career was furthered to an extent by his marriage in 1758 to Jane Morgan, daughter of Sir Thomas Morgan, Lord Lieutenant of Monmouth and Brecon. The Morgans were an important and long-established family and the elder branch of the family, headed by Jane Gould's uncle, Sir William Morgan, had a fitting country seat at Tredegar, near Monmouth, and extensive estates. Unexpectedly, Gould's wife was to inherit Tredegar in 1792, her cousin William Morgan having died, unmarried in 1763 and her three elder brothers, who inherited Tredegar in succession to each other, having all died childless. As a result of this inheritance her husband took, by Royal Licence, the surname and arms of Morgan. Gould, who had been appointed Chamberlain of Brecon, Radnor and Glamorgan in 1772, represented the borough of Brecon and later the County of Brecon in Parliament (1778-87; and 1787-1806), and was knighted in 1779. He was created a Baronet in 1792 and appointed to the Privy Council in 1802. His grandson, Sir Charles Morgan was later elevated to the peerage as the 1st Baron Tredegar in 1859.
In the 1780s, Gainsborough produced some of his most compelling portraits and his reputation was at its height. In the year that the Society commissioned this portrait he had exhibited at the Academy his celebrated portrait of the 3rd Duke of Dorset's mistress, the Italian ballerina Giovanna Baccelli (Tate Gallery, London), full-length portraits of the Prince of Wales (National Trust, Waddesdon Manor) and Colonel St. Leger (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace), and his Portrait of Master Nicholls: The Pink Boy (National Trust, Waddesdon Manor).
This portrait was one of twelve works that Gainsborough chose to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1783, his last exhibition there owing to dispute over how his pictures were hung. Of these twelve, eight were portraits, including one of the Duchess of Devonshire; a full-length of the Duke of Northumberland and the celebrated set of 15 head-and-shoulder portraits of members of the Royal family (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle).
From early on in his career Gainsborough had received patronage from the burgeoning ranks of the professional middle classes and the institutions they served. This portrait of Sir Charles Gould can be compared with his full-lengths of other prominent entrepreneurial and professional figures such as the brewer Sir Benjamin Truman (Tate Gallery, London; Waterhouse, op.cit, no.674, pl.117), the eminent doctor Ralph Schomberg (National Gallery, London; Waterhouse, op.cit, no.604, pl. 146), John Eld, of Seighford Hall, painted for the Staffordshire General Infirmiary and paid for by subscription (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; Waterhouse, op.cit. no. 237, pl.147), or Harbord Harbord, 1st Lord Suffield, whose portrait, commissioned by his constituents, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year as the present portrait (Norwich Castle Museum; Waterhouse, op.cit., no. 642). Gainsborough's portrait of Gould is characteristic of his work from this period in the sensitivity and delicacy with which it is handled. Gould's penetrating intelligence and gentle charm is convincingly conveyed. Gainsborough places him in a comparatively sober architectural setting, with only a hint of a landscape beyond, which serves to focus attention on the sitter and gives an impression of solidity, an attribute the Society no doubt wished to impress upon its members.