An Irish Gentleman


William Burton Conyngham

Pastel on paper (65 x 48.5 cm)

Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Pastel was a very popular medium among artists in the XVIII century. Mengs had made his name as a pastelist in Dresden, and the quality of his portraits in the Royal Saxon collection was much admired by the British travellers to the city. As a result of his growing success as a history painter and portraitist in Rome, his use of the pastel became rare after 1752.

According to Steffi Roettgen Mengs’ superiority as a pastellist “lay mainly in an unusual degree of saturation of colour; he could achieve such strong and powerful colours that the effect is like oil painting, and this was seen by his contemporaries as a sign of his technical mastery. Mengs achieved this effect by using and blending strong and pure pastels, as he described later in the essay Riflessi sopra differenti tinti di carne (Reflections over different tones of flesh) written before 1760.”

In the portrait of William Burton Conyngham, this superb technique is particularly evident in the highlights on the nose and lips. The rendering of the velvet cloak also has a quality that suggests the use of oils. The fine detail of the cravat is astonishing. The English scholar Francis Russel who devoted an in-depth article to Mengs’ British sitters, said that William Conyngham’s portrait “ranks as one of Mengs’ most satisfying portraits” (“The British Portraits of Anton Raphael Mengs”, National Trust Studies 1979, pp. 9-19). In fact, this portrait can easily be on a par with the finest pastels produced by masters like Quentin de La Tour or Perronneau.

Mengs deviated here from the type of format which he used the most for his Grand Tour sitters, choosing the Baroque type of head and shoulders. The luxurious folds of the cloak give an impression of volume and richness. The rather dramatic turn of the head over the shoulder provides a sense of spontaneity and naturalness. The open and eager expression of the face and the hand reaching into the cloak reinforce that impression.

Dating this beautiful portrait has been challenging, but we can safely suppose it was painted between 1752 and 1758. There are two sources that suggest this. In the first place, Francis Russell mentions that William Burton Conyngham was also portrayed by Nathaniel Dance, who was in Rome between 1754 and 1765.  There is another important clue in an article written by C.E.F.Trench that was published in 1985. In there the Irish scholar says: “At the age of twenty-six he was commissioned captain in the army. Four years later he was lieutenant-colonel in the 12th Dragoons, with which rank and regiment remained until he resigned from the army in 1775…” (William Burton Conyngham (1733-1796) “The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland”, Vol. CXV, pp. 40-63)

Most British and Irish gentlemen that went on the Grand Tour did so between the ages of 18 and 25, and the length of tour averaged four years. William Burton Conyngham joined the army in 1759, so he must have left Italy by 1758. I give the year 1752 as the earliest possible one since Mengs settled in Rome that year. Therefore we have a definite time frame that places the young Irishman in Rome between 1752 and 1758.

I would like to add a few words about the sitter who was an example of that admirable breed of gentlemen that dominated and shaped British and Irish society during the XVIII century. Of course, there were some disreputable characters among them, and some were truly despicable. Still, on the whole, their action was most beneficial for the nation’s cultural heritage, its welfare and development. In these horrible times (2020) when Western civilization is reviled, and the White Man’s accomplishments are minimized or discredited is necessary to remember men like William Burton Conyngham.

At the beginning of his article about W.B.Conyngham C.E.F.Trench describes it as: An attempt to give a more complete picture than the one that has been hitherto available about this “profound scholar and antiquary” who was also actively engaged in promoting Ireland’s commercial interests, in the building of roads and fisheries in Donegal, in the development of Dublin as a capital city and in the reconstruction of his castle in Slane.

He was born in 1733 as William Burton, son of Francis Burton and of Mary, sister of the 1st Earl of Conyngham. When the Earl died in 1781 without issue the Conyngham estates were divided between Mary’s two sons, Francis Pierpoint and William, Francis getting the estates in Clare, Limerick and England and the title of Baron Conyngham, and William acquiring the estates of Donegal and Slane. Both brothers took the surname Conyngham by Royal license in place of Burton. The names were not hyphenated, and William dropped the Burton altogether. When he died, unmarried, in 1796 the estates were re-united under one owner, Francis Pierpoint’s son who subsequently became Viscount Conyngham, Earl of Mount Charles and Marquess Conyngham.

William Burton Conyngham (Private coll.)

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