John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and 1st Duke of Greenwich was not only chief of Clan Campbell, the greatest Scottish clan, but he was also a highly successful statesman and army officer. According to his memorial in Westminster Abbey, he was born on 10 October 1680 at Ham House, Petersham, Surrey, the residence of his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, later Duchess of Lauderdale.
In 1724 William Aikman wrote that 'His Grace of Argyll is as much my friend as ever and every day I have some mark of it or other so that I'm happy enough here in good Padrons and cannot fail of success if the want of it proceeds not from my own weakness'. The artist and Duke were almost exact contemporaries, and their's was an important artistic relationship, with Aikman informally becoming the Duke's personal painter. He commissioned a great number of portraits for his several houses across Scotland and England, and in turn prompted his political associates and Campbell kinsmen to commission portraits of the Duke from Aikman, of which the present work is a fine example.
Aikman was the son of an Angus laird, and although he initially planned for a career in business, studying civil law at Edinburgh University, the deaths of his elder brother and father meant that he inherited his family estate at Cairnie, Arbroath, as a young man. He was then at liberty to pursue art as his vocation, and emerged as the leading Scottish painter of his generation. Aikman's early portraits show the influence of Sir John Baptist de Medina (1659-1710), and he had some initial success in London before travelling to Italy in 1707 to study the old masters. He returned to Edinburgh in 1711, and after the death of Medina established himself as the foremost painter of Scotland's elite.
It was with the Duke of Argyll's backing that the artist was able to move to London in 1720 to establish himself with similar success to that he had experienced in Edinburgh. By 1725, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He went on to paint other leading members of parliament and the aristocracy. Nonetheless throughout his career he retained strong links with the Scottish community in London, remaining the Duke's principal painter of choice. Towards the end of his life, suffering from tuberculosis, he arguably painted one of his greatest works, a portrait in Highland dress of the Duke of Argyll's nephew, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, (1713-1792), (Mount Stuart).