A Happy Discovery
The Google machine reveals all
By Tony Rothwell
Our son Max, down from Washington, D.C., for a visit, pointed to a large portrait in a gorgeous gold frame hanging near the fireplace and asked, “Who is that anyway?” I said we had no idea, that we just liked it when we saw it in an antique show years ago and bought it. When people ask, we usually say it’s the Fifth Earl of Rothwell. With this he took out his phone, went to Google and took a picture.
“Looks like it’s William Pitt the Younger,” he said, in the blink of a facial recognition app.
“You must be joking,” I said. “Let me have a look.”
Sure enough, there was “our” portrait with the William Pitt caption, going on to detail his years, 1759-1806. The portrait was practically identical to one by George Romney, who painted many contemporary notables.
We were amazed to suddenly find ourselves in the presence of one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers. Comparing the two pictures, the facial expression of quiet confidence, the hair, the stock at the neck, the high-collared coat, yellow waistcoat and buttons were all virtually identical, but the Romney was a little more finished and showed more of the body.
This, however, did not lessen our excitement. William Pitt the Younger was so-called because his father was also named William Pitt and had been prime minister in the 1760s. The Younger became prime minister of Great Britain at the age of 24, the youngest ever to do so, before or since.
He was an outstanding administrator and surrounded himself with competent ministers. In all, he held the position for 18 years (38 percent of his life!), during which time he reformed the Tory Party, dealt with the war against Napoleon and the French, re-established trade with America after independence, and reduced the national debt. Although somewhat colorless, he was seen as a minister who was determined to cut out corruption in politics and was nicknamed “Honest Billy” by the general public. He worked extremely hard but found solace in port wine. Indeed, he became known as “a three bottle man,” but the combination of port and hard work did little for his health, and he died in office at the age of 47.
The irony of finding out who was in the painting was that for years it had been hanging over our large book of 18th century prints by the famous English caricaturist James Gillray, over 80 of which featured the self-same William Pitt. We didn’t tie them together, probably because Romney was kind to his sitter when he painted him. Pitt had a long, sharp nose which, while blunted in the portrait, was a signature feature exaggerated — as caricaturists are wont to do — in Gillray’s prints.
Was our portrait a trial run by Romney or a copy by another artist done in his style? We may never know. But the painting, still hovering over Gillray, has taken on a whole new meaning. So much for the Fifth Earl of Rothwell. Alas, we hardly knew ye. PS
Tony Rothwell, a Brit, moved to Pinehurst in 2017, exchanging the mind-numbing traffic of Washington, D.C., for better weather and the vagaries of golf. He writes short stories, collects caricatures, sings in the Moore County Choral Society, and with his wife, Camilla, enjoys their many friends in the Sandhills.