William Beechey was well represented at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790, showing nine pictures, of which this portrait was among the most striking. The early 1790s was a critical moment in Beechey's career and with portraits such as this he was perhaps consciously reacting to the challenge posed by Thomas Lawrence, who had first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787.
George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton (1761-1827) descended from William 7th Earl of Morton, K.G. (1582-1648), Lord High Treasurer of Scotland (1630-6), one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain at the outbreak of the English Civil War and one of the most steadfast supporters of the Royalist cause. The 16th Earl, who succeeded his father in 1774, followed in his family's tradition of Royal service: a Representative Peer for Scotland (1784-90), he was Grandmaster of the Scottish Freemasons (1790-2), Chamberlain of the Household of the Queen Consort (1792-1818), and was made a Knight of the Thistle in 1797. He also served as Lord High Commissionner to the Kirk (1820-4), Lord Lieutenant of Fifeshire and Midlothian (1808-24; and 1824-7) and was created Baron Douglas of Lochleven, Kinrosshire, in the English Peerage in 1791. He married, in 1814, Elizabeth (1793-1849), daughter of Sir Francis Buller-Yarde-Buller, 2nd. Bt., and sister of John, 1st Baron Churston. On his death in 1827 (without children) his English peerage expired while his Scottish honours devolved to his cousin George.
In this flamboyant portrait the Earl of Morton is shown proudly wearing the distinctive uniform of the Royal Company of Archers, holding a longbow in his right hand, in the grounds of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. The Royal Company of Archers, which was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Anne in 1704, had its origins as a private archery society first formally established in 1676, within the wider context of organisational reform of the Scottish militia, with the specific aim of encouraging archery, then an essential military skill. The Royal Company, which consisted of noblemen and gentlemen and was self-electing, was based in Edinburgh, where it met at Archer's Hall, in Buccleuch Street. The Company's purpose was to evolve to include that of acting as the King's Bodyguard for Scotland, a duty which it first performed when King George IV made a state visit to Edinburgh in 1822. On that visit a division of fifty Archers, headed by Lord Elgin, greeted the King on his disembarkment, and forty more on his arrival at Holyrood. Alongside aristocratic members, the Royal Company of Archers included such celebrated Scots as Sir Walter Scott and the artists Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir John Watson Gordon.
The Royal Company of archers was the first military body of troops in the service of the British crown to adopt tartan as part of their uniform. Although after the Jacobite rebellion and the Battle of Culloden the Act of Proscription forbade the wearing of tartan cloths this was later repealed and tartans were worn again from 1783. The Company's uniform evolved and in this portrait the Earl of Morton is shown in the uniform as it had developed by the early 1790s. The uniform is almost identical to that in which Dr. Nathaniel Spens is shown in Sir Henry Raeburn's celebrated portrait, completed in 1793 (Royal Company of Archers). Dalmahoy House, the Earl of Morton's family seat, where this portrait hung originally, lies some 1¼ miles south-east of Ratho, to the West of Edinburgh. Originally built by William Adam for George Dalrymple, Lord Dalmahoy (1689-1745), it was acquired by the Earls of Morton in circa 1750.
The portrait was in the past attributed to John Hoppner, and McKay and Roberts (op. cit.) included it in their catalogue of Hoppner's works as such. However, in their catalogue entry for it they also outlined the possibility that it might alternatively be the picture that Beechey exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790 of 'a Nobleman in the dress of the Scottish Society of Archers', which the contemporary press described as of Lord Morton. We are grateful to John Wilson for confirming on the basis of a photograph that he believes it is the Beechey of 1790.
Sir William Beechey, who had trained as a lawyer before entering the Royal Academy Schools, is thought to have studied under Johan Zoffany and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776. He exhibited this portrait, one of his most imposing works, at the Royal Academy in 1790, where it hung in the Great Room alongside his portraits of Lord Haddo, the Duke of Montague, Lord Macartney, Lord Dalkeith and Lord Stopford, in the same year that Sir Thomas Lawrence exhibited his exhilirating portraits of Queen Charlotte and Elizabeth Farren. The ability that Beechey demonstrated with such portraits was to lead to his appointment in 1793 as portrait painter to Queen Charlotte, an appointment which the Earl of Morton seems to have secured, for whom he was to execute a series of portraits of members of the Royal family.