Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, is generally regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Although the position of “Prime Minister” had no recognition in law or official use at the time, Walpole is nevertheless acknowledged as having held the office de facto because of his influence within the cabinet. Under Queen Anne he was the leader in the commons of the Whig ‘junto’ that ruled from 1708-10, serving as war secretary from 1708-10 and treasurer of the navy from 1710-11. He temporarily fell from power in 1712, but returned to favour under George I. From April 1721 he was first lord of the treasury and Prime Minister in all but name. He retained his power under George II, but started to loss his grip on the Commons during the 1730’s. He was not keen on war, disliking the expense, but was forced to take Britain into the War of Jenkin’s Ear against Spain, which soon merged with the War of the Austrian Succession. In February 1742 he resigned, having lost the support of the Commons prompted by the Battle of Cartagena disaster. Because of his homely ways and strong Norfolk roots, he was often known to both friends and detractors as the “fat old Squire of Norfolk”
Walpole was amongst the first politicians to actively promote and disseminate his own image for political ends. At the height of his power as Prime Minister portraits of him were displayed as objects of political loyalty in a similar way to that of Royal portraiture. This pattern of conspicuous portrait display reached its height with a plethora of images of those great rivals, William Pitt and Charles James Fox in the late eighteenth century.
The portrait presented here is an 18th century version of Hans Hysing’s original full length painted in 1734 and now at Kings College, Cambridge.