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Philip Reinagle R.A. 1749-1833
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Philip Reinagle R.A. 1749-1833

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“Pero son of Pluto” - a pointer, the property of Colonel Thornton, on the point over a Snipe, a Mallard drake taking off beyond

 

Oil Painting on Canvas 15 ½ x 20 1/2 inches / 39 x 53 cm and contained in a carved and gilded frame

 

Inscribed on the lining, presumably copied from the back of the original canvas, “Pero son of Pluto/ Painted at Thornville Royal / By Reinagle / For Col. Thornton / Reinagle Senr.”

 

Painted circa 1795

 

Thomas Thornton (1757-1823), self-styled Prince of Chambord and Marquess de Pont, is famous for being one of the most dedicated and flamboyant sportsmen of the 18th and 19th centuries, dividing his time between hunting, racing, shooting, angling and hawking. In the shooting field he was certainly the best equipped - in his words he had 'a greater quantity of sporting apparatus of the most valuable and curious manufacture than any other sporting gentleman in England' - and he favoured air weapons and multi-barrelled guns and rifles, including examples with seven, twelve and fourteen barrels (the last preserved in the Arms Museum, Liège, no. Ael/5866). He was something of a legend in his own time, as well known as a bon viveur as he was as a sportsman and collector.

Thornton inherited Thornville Royal estate in Yorkshire, but his exuberant lifestyle, which involved keeping two London houses as well as his country seat, taxed his finances and he was eventually forced to sell his estates. Contemporary records chart the progress south of his considerable belongings and retinue after the sale of the Yorkshire property: this included grooms, huntsmen, falconers, kennel-hands and servants, travelling by horse and attended by hounds, following a chain of wagons containing his prize animals. In addition to the live cargo was 'a fantastic arsenal of sporting weapons drawn by Arab mares of the King's stud. The procession was completed by several wagon-loads of wine.'

Thornton was a Lieutenant Colonel in the West York Militia, a regiment that had been both financed and commanded by his father before him. In 1794 a dispute arose at Roborough Camp, near Plymouth, between Colonel Thornton and some of his officers. This was to lead to Thornton's court-martial and subsequent resignation as described in his pamphlet entitled An Elucidation of a Mutinous Conspiracy entered into by the officers of the West York Regiment of Militia against their Commanding Officer in year 1794.

A francophile, Thornton visited France with his mistress before the Revolution and again in 1802 on a sporting journey afforded during the brief peace created by the Treaty of Amiens following Napoleon's defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800. It seems probable that while in France, Thornton sought the support of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, over the circumstances of his court-martial. If he could convince Bonaparte that his version of the events were the truth and gain his endorsement, it would greatly help him to regain his reputation. He used the gift of a fine pair of pistols as his introduction. In his Sporting Tour Through France Thornton describes writing to General Duroc, Napoleon's aide-de-camp, gaining an interview and 'After some conversation .....I produced the pistols designed for the First Consul. The general then enquired the name of my regiment, with the particulars of which I acquainted him, as well as the manner of my quitting it; after which we parted mutually satisfied with each other.' He goes on to say 'In a few days I was favoured with a letter from General Duroc, containing the thanks of the First Consul for the pistols, which had been very graciously accepted.' In due course Thornton was presented to Bonaparte at the Tuileries. Their meeting was to provide a further opportunity of explaining the virtues of the men once under his command and all the implied regret caused by the untimely separation from them. 'He (Napoleon) noticed my medallion, and enquired the meaning of it. I told him, the legend was Triumph of Truth and that the medallion had been presented to me by the soldiers of the West York Militia, when I was Lieutenant Colonel of that regiment, as a testimony of their esteem for myself and family'. One of the pair of gold-inlaid pistols presented by Thornton to Napoleon Bonaparte was sold by Bonhams in London, 6 April 2006.

Following the sale of his estates Thornton leased Spye Park in Wiltshire in 1805 from the Bayntun family. He wanted to replace the Bayntun family portraits with sporting paintings of his own, and commissioned a number of large-scale works from the best sporting artists of the day such as Reinagle, Gilpin and Henry Bernard Chalon. Reinagle is known to have painted a portrait of him holding a hawk, as well as portraying his spaniels, and Gilpin exhibited A foxhound in the possession of Col. Thornton at the Royal Academy in 1786, and in 1792 a horse portrait entitled Jupiter, the property of Col. Thornton. This last work, measuring an imposing 134 x 175cm, came to auction in London in 2009 when it realised just over £100,000.

Thornton is also famous for his succession of mistresses, the first being Alicia Meynell or Massingham known as the 'Norwich Nymph' and famous in her own right for her horse race against Captain Flint at York racecourse in 1804, and again in 1805 on the Knavesmire when she beat Edward Buckle the crack jockey of his day. Thornton moved to France during the second decade of the 19th century and in 1819-20 his very substantial art collection – which included works by significant Old Masters – was auctioned off to settle his debts.

Born in Edinburgh in 1749 the son of a Hungarian musician, Philip Reinagle's early career was as a portrait painter. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1769 and in the 1770's was assistant to Allan Ramsay in his studio for the repetition of royal portraits of King George and Queen Caroline.

From 1780 for a year or two he visited Norwich and painted conversation pieces in the manner of Henry Walton. Later in his career he took to painting animals in the style of Snyders and landscapes as in the old masters, of which he was a skilful imitator and restorer. He was an artist of considerable virtuosity and versatility, and his paintings of exotic birds are amongst the most remarkable in the late 18th century.

He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1773 to 1827. The present painting dates from the last years of the 18th century, when Reinagle was engaged in painting a series of canine portraits for various patrons (including the Thorold and Thornton families), before embarking in about 1802 in the large series of the various breeds of dogs of the British Isles which he painted as models for the engravings of the same in the “Sportsman’s Cabinet”, a periodical which for a time was a great rival to the ubiquitous “Sporting Magazine”. The picture exhibits the free brushwork and broad treatment allied with vibrant colour which is the hallmark of the artist in his prime.


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