Studio of Joseph Highmore (London 1692-1780 Canterbury)
Portrait of General James Wolfe standing in a landscape, the Plains of Abraham at Quebec behind him oil on canvas 127 x 101.6cm (50 x 40in).
PROVENANCE: Williams Collection, Scorrier House, Cornwall, circa 1860, and thence by descent to the present owner
LITERATURE: J.F. Kerslake, 'The Likeness of Wolfe' in Quebec House (ed.), Wolfe: Portraiture & Genealogy 1759-1959 (Westerham, 1959), ill. pl. 9 and detail pl. 112, pp. 29-31 Dan Snow, 'Lone Wolfe' in Bonhams Magazine (London, Summer 2010 Issue 23), pp. 24-7, ill. p. 24
Traditionally given, according to family tradition, to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the present portrait is a posthumous depiction of Wolfe, said to have been painted according to more recent opinions between 1760 and 1780. It seems to relate most closely to the portrait in the National Archives of Canada which has been attributed to Joseph Highmore, and according to an old inscription given a date of 1742. This in turn appears to be, like many known relatively early portraits of the military hero, based on a portrait of Wolfe as a young man from the circle of Highmore that is at Squerryes Court. This explains why Wolfe is still wearing ensign's uniform (the slit cuffs came in in 1745 and the lace edging had largely gone out by 1760 and was banned in 1764) even though he is being depicted here at the Siege of Quebec in 1759. Of this group of portraits derived from Highmore the present painting is the last to remain in private hands and appears to be the only version to depict Quebec.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham (or the Battle of Quebec) is one of the most celebrated events in British military history and a pivotal victory in the Seven Years' War (which is known as the French and Indian War in the United States). The confrontation, which began on 13 September 1759, was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army, on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City (see fig. 1). Wolfe led the British troops up precipitous wooded cliffs, taking with them the all important cannon at night, so that the French awoke to be confronted by the British on the plains in front of Quebec. The culmination of a three-month siege by the British, the battle lasted less than fifteen minutes and involved less than 10,000 troops on both sides. Wolfe's troops successfully resisted the column advance of the French under Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, using new tactics that proved extremely effective against standard military formations used in most large European conflicts. Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe died on the field within minutes of engagement and Montcalm died the next morning. The battle proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France. Within four years, nearly all of France's possessions in eastern North America would be ceded to Great Britain, establishing the later creation of Canada.
Wolfe was renowned by his troops for being demanding on himself and them. His last victory earned him posthumous fame, most notably celebrated in Benjamin West's epic canvas of 1771, The Death of General Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which became one of the most frequently reprinted images of the period, selling thousands of engravings. At this time Wolfe's heroic reputation was second to none until Nelson's equally pyrrhic victory at Trafalgar forty-six years later.