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Portrait of Prince Ernest Augustus (1771-1851), later King of Hanover, three-quarter-length, in Windsor uniform

Portrait of Prince Ernest Augustus (1771-1851), later King of Hanover, three-quarter-length, in Windsor uniform
oil on canvas
47 1⁄4 x 35 1⁄2 in. (120 x 90.2 cm.)
(Possibly) Mrs Gainsborough’s sale, Christie’s, London, 10 April 1797, lot 40, as ‘Gainsborough Whole length portrait of a young nobleman’ (10 gns. to Whiteford).
(Possibly) Caleb Whitefoord (1734–1810), London.
Private collection, England.

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Lot Essay

This recently rediscovered portrait by Thomas Gainsborough is an important addition to his canon of royal portraits. With his heavy eyebrows, deep-set eyes and long slender nose, the sitter bears a striking resemblance to portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte’s fifth son, Prince Ernst Augustus, later Duke of Cumberland and, from 1837, King of Hanover. Comparisons with his full-length portrait by Sir William Beechey, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802, and the portrait drawing by Henry Edridge dated the same year (both Royal Collection, RCIN 404564 and RCIN 913852 respectively) confirm the identity of the sitter, here aged fifteen or sixteen. Further proof of this can be found in the sitter’s costume, the Windsor Uniform, an ensemble which was instituted by George III and worn by him, members of his family and the most senior courtiers. This usually comprised a dark-blue coat with scarlet collar, gold buttons and buff breeches (although the dandy Prince of Wales favoured an alternative that consisted of a green coat decorated à la huzzar in gold lace set off by a buff collar). Gainsborough had previously painted a bust-length portrait of Prince Ernst in Windsor Uniform as part of the set of family portraits he executed for Queen Charlotte in 1782 (Royal Collection, RCIN 401016).
Born on 5 June 1771, Ernst August’s early life was spent in a house on Kew Green away from Kew Palace and the bad example set by his spendthrift eldest brother, George, Prince of Wales. On 2 July 1786, Prince Ernst was installed as a Knight of the Garter, and a few weeks later he and his brothers Augustus, Duke of Sussex, and Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, left England to study at the University of Göttingen. Since Gainsborough's portrait does not feature the Garter Star, we can assume that it predates this period. The young princes evidently enjoyed their university time immensely, falling into debt with the merchants and tavern owners of the Electorate, though we must assume they also devoted time to their studies as Ernst August wrote to his father shortly before leaving the city in 1790: ‘I should be one of the most ungrateful of men if ever I was forgetful of all I owe to Göttingen & its professors’ (quoted J. van der Kiste, George III's Children, Stroud, 2004, p. 47). The slim, handsome young prince wished to pursue a military career, serving first with the 9th Hanoverian hussars and later transferring to the less glamorous heavy dragoons, being promoted to Major-General in the Hanoverian army in February 1794. During this period Ernst August served in the Low Countries, fighting the French in the War of the First Coalition. During an action near Tournai in August 1793, he received a sabre wound to the left side of his face, which left him disfigured for life. Subsequent portraits of the Prince thus always depicted him to the right, hiding his scars.
It is possible that this youthful portrait was commissioned from Gainsborough by the Prince of Wales, who had ordered a number of full-length portraits to form part of the lavish decoration of the throne room in his extravagant new palace, Charlton House in circa 1786. Several of the canvases from this commission were never completed, including the full-length portraits of the Duke of Gloucester (London, National Army Museum) and the Prince of Wales in hussar uniform (private collection), and Gainsborough’s fees remained unpaid. These notable exceptions apart, there are surprisingly few unfinished works by Gainsborough. As one would expect, the head is more finished and the costume more summarily executed, though Gainsborough’s extraordinarily confident facility for draughtsmanship ensures that the vim of his subject is captured in every turn of his brush.
We would like to thank Hugh Belsey for his assistance in writing the present catalogue essay.

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