Popular, witty and intelligent, Canning gained an early political following as an excellent public speaker. Though of humble Irish origins, George Canning was taken under the wing of wealthy relatives in London who provided for his education at Eton and Oxford. Conscious of the need to secure an income, Canning initially pursued a legal career before deciding to seek a seat in the House of Commons. He swiftly secured influential political backing in the shape of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, and began a spectacular rise to power. In 1807 he was appointed Foreign Secretary, a post which he held for two years and to which he was again appointed in 1812.
Canning was known for his opposition to parliamentary reform and his advocacy of Catholic emancipation. In 1807 he was made Foreign Secretary under the Duke of Portland. His greatest success was outmanoeuvring Napoleon at Copenhagen by seizing the Danish navy, but he also made his enemies, quarrelling badly with the War Minister, Castlereagh, over the deployment of troops. When Castlereagh discovered in September 1809 that Canning had made a secret deal with the Duke of Portland to have him removed from office, he was furious. Demanding redress, he challenged Canning to a duel. Having never before fired a pistol Canning missed completely, whilst Castlereagh wounded his opponent in the thigh. Both men resigned as a result of the incident. A few weeks later, Canning was disappointed to be passed over as the choice for prime minister in favour of Spencer Perceval resulting in his refusing a high profile post in the new government. However, after a brief stint as ambassador to Portugal, he returned to become President of the Board of Control.
He later replaced his old rival as Foreign Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government after Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822. Once again, he made a successful Foreign Secretary, especially in preventing South America from falling into French hands. Canning replaced Liverpool as PM on 10 April 1827, and set about forming a coalition with the Whigs under Lord Lansdowne. But in August, Canning died from pneumonia at Chiswick House, after spending barely five months in office.
This profile is taken from the bust by Francis Chantry executed in 1821.