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Sir Foster Cunliffe - The Painting

Image of the Foster Cunliffe Painting - © John Dabney Fine Art Ltd

Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet of Acton Park, Wrexham, Denbighshire standing full length in a wooded landscape, wearing archer's uniform, with green coat, buff yellow breeches and hessian boots. His archer's plumed black hat rests at his feet.

Painted by John Hoppner R.A. (1758 - 1810). Oil on canvas, 239 x 144cm, (94 x 57 inches), in a fine period gilt wood frame.

The Artist

John Hoppner, self portrait - © and Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

John Hoppner was the most celebrated portrait painter in Britain two centuries ago. The successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds, he dominated the art scene in the years 1790 - 1810. John Hoppner painted the most famous people of his time from the Prince of Wales, later George IV, to heroes such as Nelson and Wellington.

John Hoppner was born in London in 1758. He was the son of Bavarian immigrants working at the Royal Court. King George III noticed young John's talent at drawing. John was sent to live with the Keeper of the King's Drawings. At the time there were rumours that Hoppner was the King's lovechild. Hoppner milked this supposed royal link throughout his career.

Admiral Lord Nelson by John Hoppner - © and Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

In 1780 John Hoppner exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy. His career soon flourished. In 1785 he got the commission to paint the portraits of the King's three youngest daughters, Princesses Sophie, Amelia and Mary. The paintings are still in the Royal Collection. By 1790, Hoppner was the principal portrait artist for George, Prince of Wales. (The one who built the Brighton Pavilion and knew how to party).

George IV, when Prince of Wales - © and Courtesy of The Wallace Collection

Hoppner's use of colour, understanding of anatomy, appreciation of the texture of clothes and the way he spot lit his portraits put him in demand with the rich and famous. He was especially popular with the ladies of high society.

The Viscountess of St Asaph - © and Courtesy of Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Portrait of a Lady, 1795 - © and Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

His sitters included Frederick, Duke of York ( the Grand Old Duke of York of the nursery rhyme) and Lady Caroline Lamb. The painting of Lady Caroline was on display at Althorp, the family home of the Earls Spencer and the childhood home of Princess Diana. Hoppner also painted the portraits of the leading statesmen of his time: Pitt the Younger, Castlereagh and Canning.

Hoppner was a character. A great talker with a sharp wit ideally suited to the gossip and rivalries of the royal courts. He was the Prince of Wales's artist, while his great rival, Sir Thomas Lawrence, was the King's man. John Hoppner was forthright in his views. His comments on the latest fashions in art were always sought after.

He died in 1810 having displayed nearly 170 works of art at the Royal Academy alone.

Mrs Williams, c1790, by John Hoppner - © and Courtesy of Tate Britain

Portrait of a Man, possibly Richard Sheridan, by John Hoppner - © The Hermitage

The Subject

Sir Foster lived at Acton Park, Wrexham after he bought the hall and its estate in 1787. He developed the house and created new parkland. He was an important member of Wrexham society. He founded the Royal Society of British Bowmen. An active member of the Wrexham Yeomanry Cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars, he otherwise led a fairly quiet life at his home on the then northern edge of Wrexham.

Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet, was born in 1755, the son of Robert Cunliffe, a Liverpool merchant and Cheshire landowner.

In 1787 Sir Foster bought Acton Hall and spent the next few years transforming the place - building a new wing to a design by James Wyatt, laying out new gardens and creating Acton Park.

Sir Foster married Harriet Kinloch and together they had a large family (though not for the times) - six sons and four daughters.

Harriet Kinloch, Lady Cunliffe, at the time of her marriage, by John Hoppner R.A. - © and Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Sir Foster was a typical member of the gentry. The family business in Liverpool ceased trading in 1759, but Sir Foster had enough property, land and business interests to ensure a comfortable lifestyle.

He was a keen art collector. He owned paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was natural for him to have an artist of the quality of John Hoppner to paint his portrait.

The painting reveals Sir Foster's other great interest: archery. He discovered he liked the sport at a party at Norton Priory. On his return he decided to set up an archery society as a way to meet up with and entertain his friends.

However, firing bows and arrows was not enough when Britain declared war on France in 1793. The government feared a French invasion and encouraged each county to set up its own volunteer force. Sir Foster was offered the command of the local yeomanry cavalry in 1795. He declined as he said he did not have the experience. Instead he joined as a ordinary member. However, he must have felt differently by 1800 as he became the Major Commandant. The Wrexham Yeomanry cavalry were a proper force: they trained at least once a week, there were two weeks permanent duty a year, Government inspections every quarter and they were fully equipped and ready for action.

Wrexham Yeomanry Cavalry in uniform, 1803 - © and Courtesy of Wrexham Museum

The war with France affected Sir Foster in other ways. Napoleon's Continental blockade meant increased food prices. Wine and port were soon in short supply. Sir Foster clamped down on the good life at Acton Park. He must have been successful as someone scrawled on his park gate:

A great house and no cheer
A large park and no deer
Large cellars and no beer
Sir Foster Cunliffe lives here.

Sounds like someone was not impressed with his hospitality.

Sir Foster died in 1834.