An Irish landowner and politician, Denis Daly was the eldest son of James Daly (d. 1769), of Carrownakelly and Dunsandle, co. Galway, and his second wife, Catherine Gore, of Manor Gore, co. Donegal, whose father, Sir Ralph Gore, 4th Bt. (d. 1733), had been one of the dominant politicians of his generation. Daly was elected to represent the county borough constituency of the town of Galway while still a minor in 1767, and held a seat in the Irish Parliament continually until his death in 1791. A contemporary commented that Daly possessed a 'rare combination...of genius and industry, of eloquence and sagacity' (Falkland, A review of the principal characters of the Irish House of Commons, 1789, pp. 2-3). He was an intimate and staunch supporter of Henry Grattan, who is reported to have said that had Daly lived the Irish Rebellion of 1798 may have been averted, for 'he would have spoken to the people with authority and would have restrained the government'. Daly owned estates in Co. Mayo, Galway, Clare and Limerick. He lived at Carrownakelly Castle, in the parish of Kiltullagh, Co. Galway, before moving four miles south to the newly built Dunsandle House, now a ruin. In 1780 he married Lady Henrietta Maxwell (d. 1852), only daughter and heir of Robert Maxwell, Earl of Farnham, and had two sons and six daughters. The eldest son, James, represented Galway County in the Parliament of the United Kingdom and was later raised to the peerage.
This portrait can be dated stylistically to c. 1775, when Reynolds was at the height of his powers as a portraitist. He was elected to the Florence Academy in that year and presented them with a Self-portrait that now hangs in the Uffizi, Florence. The design and execution of Daly's waistcoat compares very closely with that in Reynolds' portrait of Richard Crofts of c. 1775 (Private collection; D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, I, p. 155, no. 454; II, fig. 1134). A bust-length pastel by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (c. 1740-1808) in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, would appear to derive from this portrait of Daly. Another portrait of this sitter, also described as by Reynolds, was in the 1872 exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy, lent by Lady Louisa Grattan. Daly also features in Francis Wheatley's ambitious painting of The Irish House of Commons (Leeds City Art Galleries; M. Webster, Francis Wheatley, London, 1970, pp. 36-9, fig. 36).
This portrait descended in the Daly family to Major Denis Bowes Daly, who owned the magnificent country house Russborough, near Blessington, in County Wicklow, between 1931 and 1952, which, like Powerscourt House, was designed by the German born architect Richard Cassel (Castle) in the mid-18th century.
We are grateful to Martin Postle, of the Paul Mellon Centre, London, for confirming that in his opinion the portrait is by Reynolds with assistance from his Studio, having examined the painting at first hand; he believes that the head of the sitter was painted by Reynolds, while the drapery and background were executed by another hand. David Mannings does not support the attribution to Reynolds, on the basis of photographs, stating that there is no evidence that Reynolds painted Daly.