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Portraits of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury

John Closterman, c. 1700/1: The third Earl and his brother Maurice Ashley (National Portrait Gallery).

Inventories compiled after the third Earl’s death offer us some idea of the portraits commissioned by him probably in 1701, their artist John Closterman, whom manuscript evidence places as Shaftesbury’s guest at St Giles’s House from July to September 1701, but whom the Earl had known (and possibly employed) for some years prior to this. The sitters — family members and friends — were for the most part also assembled there, and the result was a remarkable collection intended specifically for two rooms, one of which Shaftesbury would “so finely & nobelly” adorn with pictures of “so many relations”; in 1702 he tried to persuade his cousins, the first Duke and Duchess of Rutland, to sit for Closterman for this same gallery (TNA: PRO 30/24/22/1, fols 50-1, a 1702 letter from said Duchess to a family servant). Closterman’s finished family portraits comprise an earlier (?) double portrait showing the Earl and his brother Maurice Ashley, then, dating probably from 1701-1702, one of Shaftesbury with a second (unidentified) figure (see below), one of Maurice and a groom (click here), and a painting which undoubtedly portrays their four sisters Frances, Dorothy, Elizabeth, and Gertrude (see Malcolm Rogers 1983, Plate 61: “Unknown Women”). The artist also created full length portraits of Shaftesbury’s friend Sir John Cropley (Rogers 1983, Plate 56), of Cropley’s half-sister Lady Katherine Ashe (Rogers 1983, Plate 59), and of another friend, Thomas Micklethwaite (yet to be traced). The above-mentioned inventories tell us that Sir John and Micklethwaite were on display in the Cedar Room along with Shaftesbury’s ancestors Sir Maurice Cooper and Sir Anthony Ashley; the third Earl, his brother, and the four sisters hung in the “Great Room”.

The “interactive” (David Solkin 1995, 241) quality of this double portrait can only be understood in the context of The Sociable Enthusiast (printed privately, probably in 1704), an earlier version of The Moralists: like Theocles and Philocles, Shaftesbury (on the right) and Maurice Ashley appear to be out ‘roving’ in order, as the Ionic Apollonian temple in the background (a symbol of the liberal arts) and Maurice Ashley’s explanatory gesture suggest, to discuss questions of philosophy in the spirit of brotherly love and friendship. The painting thus encapsulates the liberal Socratic dialogue which forms the structural framework for the Earl’s philosophical magnum opus.

The portrait has met with increasing scholarly intention over the past twenty years. For David Solkin “the crucial point was to represent the pair as men possessed of those ‘natural affections’ which originated in the private confines of the family sphere and ultimately led ‘to the good of the public.’” Solkin’s interpretation is indebted to cultural materialism, and this explains why he sees “painting about dialogue” as the first expression of a new ideology: “commercial humanism” (Solkin 1993, 3 and 19). The background “recalls the tracts of woodland which covered much of Shaftesbury’s Dorset estate”, landed property being “the only possible basis for a truly virtuous polity,” that is, “an ideal society, in the form of a moral hierarchy ruled by an elite of disinterested masculine citizens” (Solkin 1995, 239).

Marcella Baur-Callwey (2007) is indebted to the principles of historical art criticism. She associates the landscape with a passage in The Moralists (Part II, Section IV), where Theocles takes the example of an oak as a starting point for his meditation on the unity of the world and cosmos. Correspondingly, Baur-Callwey interprets the oak springing from one trunk in the background as a symbol of brotherly love (123 f.). Some scholars have argued that Shaftesbury’s and Closterman’s composition is indebted to the so-called “San Ildefonso group” (now in the Prado, Madrid) which Closterman had possibly seen in the Roman Odescalchi collection (see Baur-Callwey, 125 and 127f.; see also Rogers 1983, 259; Solkin 1995, 240; Isabella Woldt, 139).


John Closterman, c. 1701/2: The third Earl and an unidentified figure (courtesy of the Earl of Shaftesbury).

Malcom Rogers (1981) points out the possible influence of the Inquiry concerning Virtue (1699), reading the portrait as an “emblematic expression of this theory […] that true virtue lies in the harmony of a well-balanced personality, the inward reflection of the harmony of the outside world” (15). According to David Leatherbarrow (2004), Shaftesbury “had Closterman represent his struggle to maintain a balance between the contemplative or philosophical life and the active or political life” (167) in this portrait of himself and an unidentified second figure. For Li Shiqiao, the portrait suggests that the title inherited by Shaftesbury on his father’s death “gave him more a sense of responsibility than that of privilege” (140).

Among the books in the background are volumes of Plato (ΠΛΑΤ) and Xenophon (ΞΕΝΟΦ). There are, moreover, three unidentified books, two on the table (the books there forming “a triangualar [sic] formation”; Rogers 1981, 15), and another one in the Earl’s left hand. This latter volume in particular has given rise to speculation. According to Lori Branch (2006) the “small, dark greenish-brown book […] bears an uncanny resemblance to the very volume in which Shaftesbury inscribed the first half of the Ασκηατα” (130). Referring to Simon Gribelin’s engraving (based on the portrait) which is prefixed to the second edition of Characteristicks, Friedrich A. Uehlein (2008) identifies the book as “my little Colon-Edition” (1048), that is, Hieronymus Wolf’s 1595 edition of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, item Cebetis Thebani Tabula de vita humana prudenter instituenda.

Confusion surrounds the figure of a “servant”, carrying what is probably the peer’s robe. Malcolm Rogers (1981) sees “perhaps a senior member of his household” (15). Robert B. Voitle (1984, xii), Leatherbarrow (1984, 339), and Isabella Woldt (2004, 140) suggest Shaftesbury’s steward John Wheelock, and Anna Wessely (1999-2000) thinks the figure “may refer to, although not represent, Lord Somers” or the first Earl (285). Branch (2006) considers the latter possibility but, approaching the Earl’s work from a psychoanalytical point of view, she favours the idea “that the second figure is Shaftesbury himself, and that together the two figures dramatize that self-conscious self-splitting that is everywhere referenced in both his public and private writings” (129).

Works Cited

BAUR-CALLWEY, Marcella. “John Clostermans Doppelporträt Lord Shaftesburys und seines Bruders Maurice-Ashley.” Die Differenzierung des gemeinsamen männlichen Doppelportraits in England von Hans Holbein d. J. Bis Joshua Reynolds (Munich, 2007), pp. 120-25.

BRANCH, Lori. “‘True Enthusiasm’: Moral Sense Philosophy and Fissures of the Secular Self in Shaftesbury’s Private Writings” and “Coda to Chapter 3: ‘Divide Yourself, be Two’ – Images of the Modern Subject.” Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (Waco, Texas, 2006), pp. 91-134.

LEATHERBARROW, D. “Character, Geometry, and Perspective, or How Topography Conceals Itself.” Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture (Philadelphia, 2004), pp. 131-68.

ROGERS, Malcolm. John Closterman: Master of the English Baroque, 1660-1711. London, 1981.

ROGERS, Malcolm. “John and John Baptist Closterman: A Catalogue of their Works.” The Walpole Society, 49 (1983), 224-79; Figures 1-73.

SHIQIAO, Li. Power and Virtue: Architecture and Intellectual Change in England, 1660 – 1730. London and New York, 2007.

SOLKIN, David H. “ReWrighting Shaftesbury: The Air Pump and the Limits of Commercial Humanism.” Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art, 1700-1850 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 73-99. Reprint in Early Modern Conceptions of Property (London, 1995), pp. 234-53.

UEHLEIN, Friedrich A. “‘Stoisch, wahrhaft sokratisch’. Epiktet und Marc Aurel in der Philosophie Shaftesburys.” Stoizismus in der europäischen Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst und Politik: eine Kulturgeschichte von der Antike bis zur Moderne, eds Barbara Neymeyr, Jochen Schmidt and Bernhard Zimmermann (Berlin and New York, 2008), pp. 1047-62.

VOITLE, Robert B. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713. Baton Rouge and London, 1984.

WESSELY, Anna. “The Knowledge of an Early Eighteenth-Century Connoisseur: Shaftesbury and the Fine Arts.” Acta Historiae Artium Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 41 (1999-2000), 279-309.

WOLDT, Isabella. Architektonik der Formen in Shaftesburys ‘Second Characters’. Munich, 2004.