Painted in 1769, when Cotes was at the height of his powers, this double portrait of the Welbys is undoubtedly one of the artist's masterpieces, and is one of the earliest depictions of chess in British portraiture. Cotes pitched himself against Reynolds in the exhibition rooms and vied with Ramsay in the private sphere of court patronage during the course of the 1760s, to secure a position as one of the most fashionable portrait painters of the day. A founder-member of the Royal Academy in 1768, this painting was one of the seven works (five oils and two pastels) that Cotes selected to demonstrate his dexterity as a portraitist at the Academy's inaugural exhibition in 1769.
Cotes's adeptness at working in both pastels and oils gave him a notable advantage in the exhibition rooms during the 1760s, where sheer virtuosity was one means of making works stand out in the densely packed hangs of the Society of Artists' exhibitions, most notably in competition with Reynolds. As one critic writing in the Public Advertiser in May 1764 observed, 'It is with infinite Pleasure one yearly sees this Artist [Cotes] presenting to the World, fresh Instances of masterly Elegance both in Crayons and Oils. His portraits may justly vie with those of Reynolds; and greatly to his Honour be it said, that he generally reserves a beautiful Correctness in his Pictures, which the latter Master too often neglects. Those praises which the Public have lately bestowed on Mr Cotes, will make him, I dare say, aim at still further Excellences in his Profession' (cited in Johnson, op. cit., p. 18). The following year, Cotes was appointed director of the Society of Artists by King George III, and in 1767 he received royal commissions for full-length portraits of Queen Charlotte with Princess Charlotte, and Princess Louisa and Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark (The Royal Collection). In 1767, the King allowed Cotes to exhibit a half-length pastel of Queen Charlotte with Princess Charlotte (The Royal Collection), likely done in preparation for the full-length in oil, at the Society's annual exhibition; never before had George III thought it fitting for a portrait of the Royal Family to be publicly exhibited, nor had he accepted any of the numerous invitations from the Society to see its annual exhibition. This very public backing of Cotes by the king was a sting for Reynolds, who chose not to exhibit that year, and led one rather overzealous critic to exclaim: 'How happy Cotes? Thy skill shall shine, Unrivall'd in thy class, almost divine now close thy talks of fame In George's sun shine, and in Charlotte's name' (The London Chronicle, 5-7 May 1767, cited in ibid., pp. 41-2).
It was in this fiercely competitive environment, with the crucial public platform of the Royal Academy's first exhibition fast approaching, that Cotes executed this remarkable double portrait of the Welbys. The vibrancy of the palette and the bravura handling of paint, which show Cotes at his boldest and most expressive, were likely aimed at capturing both the attention of the public and the praise of the critics. Cotes has saturated his canvas in bold, primary and secondary colours to startling effect: the brilliant blue of Mr. Welby's coat adds to the dynamism of his pose, while Mrs. Welby's crisp white dress, with its strong green accents, jumps out against the intense pink of the draped curtain. Cotes's manipulation of the paint further adds to the vitality to the composition: the thick, agile brushstrokes used to describe the frogging of Mr. Welby's waistcoat, and the ruching and lace of Mrs. Welby's dress, contrast with the smoother, more blended brushwork in the flesh tones, while a wet-in-wet application of paint is masterfully employed to render the reflection of the chess pieces on the mahogany table.
Cotes exhibited seven works at the Royal Academy's inaugural exhibition in 1769: five oils, including this double portrait (no. 26) and a full-length portrait of Lewis Cage, shown holding a cricket bat (no. 23), which was sold in these Rooms, 15 November 1996, lot 21 (£716,500) (fig. 1); and two pastels, including a portrait of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester (no. 27; The Royal Collection). These works contrast markedly with the four portraits that Reynolds selected for exhibition, including the full-lengths of Elizabeth, Duchess of Manchester, and her son, as 'Diana disarming love' (no. 89), and Annabella Blake, as 'Juno, receiving the cestus from Venus' (no. 90) (D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, nos. 1271 and 186 respectively), which embodied and promoted his concept of the Grand Manner in portraiture, replete with historical associations. Cotes was constantly trying to compete with the scale, grandeur and idealisation of Reynolds' portraits, while preserving his own individual style, founded on rococo decorativeness and empirical observation. His full-length double portrait of Lady Stanhope and Lady Effingham, as 'Diana and her companion', of circa 1767-1770 (York, City Art Gallery), shows how closely he could assimilate Reynolds' ideals. In this portrait of the Welbys however, Cotes has embraced his penchant for the rococo, in the celebration of the decorative details of the costumes and in the sentimental theme of love, while also remaining thoroughly modern in the fashionable attire of the sitters. Furthermore, he has established a successful compositional formula for double portraits of three-quarter-length format. While this composition may ultimately derive from Reynolds' Portrait of James Paine and his Son, exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1766 (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum), in which Paine is seated and his son standing, against a curtained backdrop, in adapting it to fit the requirements of a horizontal marriage portrait Cotes has created a distinct formula of his own.
Johnson, who compiled a catalogue raisonné of the artist's portraits in 1976, described the double portraits that Cotes executed between 1765 and 1770 as 'possibly the most interesting of his pictures' from this final phase of artistic output (ibid, p. 30). Cotes executed two other double portraits in horizontal format between 1767 and 1769: a Double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Crathorne (San Marino, Huntington Library and Art Gallery) and a Double portrait of a lady and gentleman (subsequently cut in two, one half preserved in Boston, Museum of Fine Art). The composition of the Welby portrait is arguably more balanced and more dynamic than in the other two portraits; each figure occupies its own space, while the energetic figure of Mr. Welby, who has just leapt to his feet, complements the composed figure of his wife.
Another important aspect of this portrait is the chess game. Chess had featured in western art since the Middle Ages, firstly in medieval manuscript illumination and later in full-scale paintings, a celebrated example being Sofonisba Anguissola's The Chess Game of 1555 (Poznan, National Museum). The present portrait is however a rare example of the game appearing in British portraiture. A later instance is Raeburn's three-quarter-length Double portrait of General and Mrs. Francis Dundas playing chess, of circa 1810-1812 (fig. 2). London and Paris were the leading centres of the European chess world in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Players had gathered in coffee houses to play and discuss the game from the beginning of the century, in Café de la Régence in the Place du Palais-Royal and in Slaughter's Coffee House in St. Martin's Lane, which had been established in 1692. Edmund Hoyle published a treatise on piquet and chess in London in 1744 (five editions by 1750), aimed at the growing middle-class market, which he supplemented in 1761 with An Essay Towards making the Game of Chess Easily learned By those who know the Moves only, without the Assistance of a Master. During the second half of the century, there was a concerted move towards greater standardisation and higher playing standards, and eventually the emergence of regulated competitions and theoretical literature. One of the main driving forces behind these developments was the French composer and celebrated chess player of the age, André Philidor, whose L'Analyze des Echecs (London, 1749) was aimed both at players who knew little about the game and those who wished to take a more rigorous and academic approach. As it became more erudite the game attracted the attentions of the upper-classes. As early as the 1740s, the Duke of Rutland had invented his own version of the game on an enlarged chess board (14 x 10 squares) with several new pieces, including a concubine. Chess reached its height of popularity in fashionable Parisian and London society in the 1770s and 1780s. In 1770, a number of players formed a chess club at the Salopian Coffee House, Charing Cross, and in 1774, there was a new club at Parsloe's Subscription Room. Philidor's revised edition of Analyze (almost double its original length) was published in English and French in London in 1777, dedicated to members of the chess club. The subscription list included intellectuals, headed by Diderot, Marmontel, Voltaire and Gibbon, and contained a great roll call of noblemen and politicians, from Calonne, Choiseul and Talleyrand in France, to Rockingham, North, Fox and Townshend in England, and no less than thirteen dukes. Murray alluded to it as 'the last rally of the English nobility to claim chess as the game most typical of their order' (H.J.R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford, 1913, p. 863). The changes that occurred in chess during the eighteenth century ultimately prepared the way for the emergence of the modern game as a serious intellectual sport.
The Welbys would have been all too aware of the fashionable and erudite associations of the game. William Earle Welby was the son of William Welby (d. 1792), of Denton, Sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1746, and his wife Catharine, daughter of James Cholmeley, of Easton, Lincolnshire. The sitter, who was M.P. for Grantham between 1802 and 1806, married Penelope, third daughter of Sir John Glynne, Bt., of Hawarden Castle, in 1766 and their son, also William Earle, was born in 1768. The sitter was created a Baronet on 27 June 1801 and his son succeeded to the baronetcy on his death in 1815. Johnson suggested that Mr. Welby's gesture in this portrait is one of amazement and dismay that his only remaining black piece is about to be taken by his wife's only remaining white piece, but given that these pieces are both kings, which can only move one square in any direction and never directly next to each other, the game is in fact a draw. Mr. Welby's expression can therefore be read as one of amusement and perhaps even delight that the two pieces are destined to dance eternally around each other on the board, which might in turn be interpreted as a sign of a long and happy marriage. Penelope died two years later however, in 1771, only a year after Cotes himself.
We are grateful to Phil Ehr, of the English Chess Federation, for clarifying the state of play. We are also grateful to Janet Grant, College of Arms, for her assistance in researching the sitters.