Portraits by Martin Cregan

Letter from the Duchess of Wellington to Martin Cregan

The Duchess of Wellington

Written in elegant cursive, the letter begins, ‘The Duchess of Wellington is extremely obliged to Mr Cregan for letting her see the admirable portraits of her brothers'It concludes with a request that Mr Cregan visit the Duchess at her London residence, at Apsley House, that same day. The date is given as 4th August 1821.

Welcome to Regency England, a time of strict manners and high morals as the country emerged from the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), buoyed by the British victory at Waterloo in 1815. As was customary at the time, the Duchess’s correspondence is written in the third person, removing a certain sense of intimacy from the reader. Her letter’s brevity also appears to suggest a matter of little import. However, such a suggestion would overlook a greater poignancy threaded in these few short sentences.

Victory and loss

For the Duchess, Catherine Sarah Dorothea Wellesley (née  Pakenham, 1773-1831), this tempestuous period of history had been bittersweet and had carried a heavy cost. While her husband, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) had famously defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, her younger brother Edward had been killed in action that same fateful year at the Battle of New Orleans in Louisiana. Only her two younger brothers now remained - Thomas, 2nd Earl of Longford, and Lt.-Gen. Sir Hercules Robert Pakenham

Portraits to Remember

The Irish-born artist Martin Cregan (1788–1870) was, by the 1820s, a well-established portraitist in London, known for his faithful likenesses, having captured military personnel, politicians, and distinguished society figures. Such fame evidently brought him to the attention of the Duke and Duchess and he undertook at least two portraits for the family of Thomas and Edward Pakenham.

portrait of Thomas by Cregan was exhibited at the Royal Academy (London) in 1821 and again at the Royal Hibernian Academy (Dublin) in 1827. The latter exhibition also included a portrait by Cregan of Edward, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822.

We may wonder if these two portraits are the pictures referred to in the Duchess's letter? Was she permitted to see them in the artist's studio, prior to being exhibited? What might it have meant to her to see her brothers, particularly Edward, captured on canvas, six years after his death? Extant likenesses of both men are small in number and both of Cregan's portraits remain valued treasures in the Longford family collection. The Duchess's letter offers us a rare glimpse into the life of a revered family, and the history of two beloved portraits.

 

Claire Doohan, Mahon Project Archivist