The sitter was the second son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and heir presumptive to his elder brother, King George IV. In February 1764, at only six months of age, Prince Frederick was elected Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück, Lower Saxony, a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. He held this role, which alternated between a Catholic prelate and a protestant prince, until 1803, when the bishopric was incorporated into Hanover. He was invested as a Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1767 and a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1771.
Destined for a career in the army, Prince Frederick was sent to Hanover to study military tactics and rules of discipline, as well as languages, in 1781. He was appointed Colonel of the 2nd Horse Grenadier Guards in March 1782; promoted to Major General in November that year; and Lieutenant General in October 1784. In November 1784, Prince Frederick was created Duke of York and Albany, and a member of the Privy Council.
During the French Revolutionary Wars, Prince Frederick led unsuccessful campaigns in Flanders (1793-1795) and Holland (1799). While brave, he did not prove an effective leader in the field. He is remembered rather for the wisdom and compassion that he displayed as Commander-in-Chief of the forces, a position that he held from 1799 until his death (save for a brief period of resignation due to a scandal relating to his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, between 1809 and 1811). He dealt with numerous abuses in the discipline and administration of the army during this period, weeding out incompetent officers and encouraging the capable by promoting on grounds of merit rather than through purchase or nepotism. He also founded the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and the military school at High Wycombe, the forerunner of Sandhurst, in order to improve officer training. He is commemorated by the Duke of York Column overlooking The Mall, erected in 1834.
Prior to the present portrait, Lawrence had executed a half-length and a full-length portrait of the Duke, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 (no. 64) and 1816 (no. 61) respectively (K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete catalogue of the oil paintings, Oxford, 1989, p. 290, nos. 858a and 858b respectively). In the former, the Duke wears the collar and badge of the Garter and of the civil Order of the Bath (63 x 52 in.; Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Fondación Luis A. Ferré); in the latter, he wears Field Marshal's uniform with the star of the Garter and the collars of the Garter and the military Order of the Bath, which he received in 1815 (108 x 70 in.; Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, Waterloo Chamber). The present portrait is a more informal and intimate image of the Duke, in private dress with the star of the Garter.
A number of versions of this type exist. In his 1989 catalogue, Garlick suggested that 'that with the strongest claim to be the original', exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 (no. 73), was lot 96 in the Duke of Cambridge sale, Christie's, 11 June 1904 (ibid., under 858c), which was sold at Sotheby's, London, on 25 November 2004. However, it seems possible that this picture, which was sold from the Royal House of Hanover in 2005, and which probably descended through the sitter's brother, Ernst Augustus, who ascended to the Hanoverian throne upon the death of his older brother William IV in June 1837, may be the prime version.
The frame is identical in design to that of the closely contemporary portrait of the Duke of Wellington, sold in these rooms on 22 November 2006, lot 32. Henry Harlow's Double portrait of Marianne and Charlotte Gooch, which is lot 209 in this sale, is also presented in this design of frame.