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Portrait of Admiral Lord Heathfield by Joshua Reynolds - Description of the Painting

14 April 2022
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Portrait of Admiral Lord Heathfield by Joshua Reynolds. Canvas, oil. 142.2 x 113.7 cm


The great English portrait painter Joshua Reynolds launched his career back in the 1750s, when he began creating the series of paintings dedicated to the English military of his epoch. He wrote portraits of Captain Manners, Commander Keppel. One of the final paintings of the subject series, titled “Admiral Heathfield”, who was the governor of Gibraltar, was presented in 1788.

From 1779 to 1783, the British army managed to stand up for this territory owing, among others, to the local governor, admiral and Lord Heathfield. After these battles Gibraltar became one of the British colonies, and Heathfield was assigned to be the first representative of the British crown.

It is worth noting that Heathfield’s portrait differs from all the other ones created by Joshua Reynolds' within the British military series. What connect them is that they were all painted under the influence of the Renaissance, meaning that they were intended to show the role played by one person, his strong will and power in the fate of the Motherland. But The portrait of Heathfield features the signs of the influence of a new cultural and painting trend, specifically, romanticism: the willingness to depict the hero with no excessive pathos, but at the same time not deducting from his greatness.

The Commander Keppel from the early portrait by Reynolds was painted in the Baroque style: the character is elegant, slightly haughty, looking like a Greek Apollo. None of the above mentioned can be found in Heathfield's portrait.

The main character is shown strictly, even a bit toughly and monumentally, to emphasize his greatness. The admiral's face is weathered; today we would say "no makeup." Heathfield is not idealized: his head is without wig, and there are wrinkles visible on his face. The lack of smile on his face accentuates his gravity and equanimity as a military man.

The author intentionally changes the angle: we look at the lord from below, which stresses his splendor and the fact that the British themselves shall salute this man. There is a lot of smoke, and the guns serving as the traces of the battle behind Heathfield. This is the very defense of Gibraltar from the Spanish fleet. The admiral is holding a key in his hands, which has a double meaning. Heathfield, as governor, keeps Gibraltar locked and holds the key, and, on the other hand, Gibraltar itself is treated as the gateway to the Mediterranean, with the key shown held by the British.
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