Sunday, 10 January 2010

That Portrait Again & The Man Himself


Frederick Gustavus Burnaby
by James Jacques Tissot
oil on panel, 1870
19 1/2 in. x 23 1/2 in. (495 mm x 597 mm)

© National Portrait Gallery, London                                                              Photo: Hugo Burnand

The Corinthian Column has just kindly pointed out the Tissot painting was doubtless an inspiration for Hugo Burnand's photographic portrait of HRH The Prince of Wales on his 60th Birthday.  

Now you may think that Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842-1885) looks a touch effete in this painting but he was reputed to be the strongest man in the British Army and was said to have carried a pony under one arm.  

He entered the Royal Horse Guards in 1859 but, restless for active service,  found adventure in balloon ascents, travel and exploration. As a correspondent for The Times he reported on General Gordon’s expedition to the Sudan, reaching Khartoum;  and made a famous winter journey on horseback across three thousand miles of the Russian steppes.  His account of that,  A Ride to Khiva (1876),  became a best seller.

A further book On Horseback through Asia Minor (1877)  described action against the Russians whilst he fought on behalf of the Turks.  Not content with that, he crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon in 1882 and  acted as a military intelligence officer in The  Sudan under General Valentine ‘Pasha’ Baker.  Burnaby was killed by a spear to his throat at the hand of Dervish forces at the Battle of Abu Klea in 1885. 

References: The National Portrait Gallery; Wikipedia.



  1. Oh my-where is the horse under one arm painting- Rosie-here is inspiration, and spear through the throat.(that is horrible really) The man's man was really an aesthete back in the day-
    Both appear a wee bit smarmy to me-Now I know Burnaby had reason to be.

  2. We Brits do smarmy terrifically well,la! Particularly in a dandy uniform.
    Ah, the aesthetics of manliness back in the 19th C., yes.

  3. Yes, in Tissot's portrait, Burnaby does seem both effete--thanks to his delicately arched eyebrows & the dainty way he holds his cigarette--and also smarmy, what with the lounge lizard moustaches & what looks like a leer to me. Was Tissot's beautiful, melancholy muse also in the room that day? Hard to say. Either way (and whatever Burnaby's true personality) his languid pose & general preening air make him seem utterly at home in his luxurious, almost feminine surroundings. As a work of art, it works. Unfortunately, the ame thing can't be said of the photo of Prince Philip.

    In trying for the same kind of 'informal' pose, Burnand only makes the Prince look awkward & ill-at-ease. On a plump, down-filled divan--even when wearing an elaborate uniform--Burnaby's slouchy pose works, because the long descending line of the stripe on his leg is also at rest; strictly speaking, the pose may not be flattering, but it's totally believable. The guy probably really sat around like that that in his underwear. This time he happens to be wearing a uniform, but that's the only change. He's comfortable in his own skin.

    On the other hand, the Prince's comical attempt at a "casual" pose (while sitting on what looks like the palace's third-best throne) looks not only silly but as uncomfortable as hell. It's like the guy has never sat in a chair before, and between his rigid, unnatural posture & his forced half-smile, he's like a teen forced to attend the opera, silently making it clear by body language that he doesn't want to be there. If Queen Victoria had seen Prince Albert acting out like this, she would have smacked him upside the head & told him: "Sit up straight! You look like a commoner!" Maybe the Queen was too busy that day to keep an eye on things.

    But posture isn't the only problem. There's also the weird disjunction between the splendor of the throne & the uniform & the budget backdrop from the photo studio at the mall. Heck, I'd know that piece of crap anywhere, and for an extra $9.99, the Prince could have upgraded to the Law Library background, but really, anything would have been better than this. I'm just glad that none of my tax dollars went for this dog.

    When Winston Churchill saw his Graham Sutherland portrait, it didn't get sent to the media, it got sent to the cornfield, but then, Prince Philip is no Winston Churchill.

  4. No matter, Magnaverde, that this is actually Prince Charles, son of Philip.
    They're beginning to look alike these days. You are so right about the budget backdrop. It's even got a dent in it.

    I am so conditioned to photographs of the Royal Family that I didn't have any of your engaging criticisms of this pose. It looked to me that he killed two birds with one stone: getting dressed up for Trooping the Colour and getting his pic taken afterwards. I don't find him smarmy because he isn't. He's spoilt and petulant on occasion but see him in action and he projects extraordinary bonhomie and enthusiasm if he has to work a crowded room on behalf of someone else's event. People should try it before they write him off. As to this portrait, it's just too rich - almost indigestible. I can't agree about his discomfort. The worst thing about the premier Royals, oh hush my mouth, is that they, erm, lack elegant hands. I try not to look.
    On the other hand, nobody gives them credit for being extremely fit and in good shape for their ages.

  5. I wonder if Charles' photographer has been given a set of implicitly contradictory tasks. Give him an aura of authority, humanize him, make him both remote and accessible.
    Adam Mars-Jones wrote a novella some years back premised on the Queen contracting rabies from one of her corgies, and the ensuing disruptions in protocol. The backstory was a sympathetic description of the royal family as exotic pets, or prisoners. I guess fame does that to some extent whether you're a royal or not. Does being born into it make it easier, or pose a bigger risk of depersonalization?
    Dick Cavett has a nice meditation on this:

  6. Of course, some people would say that contradictory factors equlas 'many layered'. I really don't know what to say on all this. I can't see very straight being involved in the whole royalist project!

  7. I'm sorry, Rose. Not my intention to put you on the spot.(I was really just fishing for an excuse to link to Cavett. He and Roger Ebert have achieved a sort of luminescence as essayists lately.)

  8. No, no, No rurritable! I went to a party and didn't have time to read Dick Cavett. I have now, but still don't exactly know who he is except he sounds distinguished and rather nice.
    I happen to share my given name Rosemary and my married name with the worst female serial killer in history. Nice eh. When they read my name out in the doctor's waiting room, I stood up and said 'I'm not a murderess you know!' I don't think anyone had actually been listening so I committed the worse sin of talking to a crowd of catatonic people.

  9. I don't think he looks effete at all. He is surrounded by the instruments of battle, by the means of learning, and by domestic comforts. In short, he is the nineteenth century's ideal image of a man: able in body and mind, fit for war, and head of a household. Duty used to have a lot to do with the domestic - it symbolised the thing for which you fought. Somewhere along the line this has become a little lost. I admire the languid elegance captured in this portrait, and only lament that the demise of smoking as a manly activity has robbed us of this attitude (not that I lament the demise of smoking, by any means). But waving one's blackberry around really doesn't strike the same note, does it?

  10. I agree that duty had a lot to do with the domestic and in my experience, men in the forces are more sentimental about home and hearth than those who take it for granted.

  11. That is good to hear. Those who take home and hearth for granted could do with hearing about duty a bit more often.

  12. Country Life (11/11/2009) chose Tissot's painting of Col Burnaby as Favourite Painting of the fortnight. Impressive, I think.

    Two issues arise out of that article. Firstly Burnaby tragically died in battle at c40, just like the younger Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart brothers who died in the English Civil War. All three were young, handsome, with a full life to live for.

    Secondly it suggests that Burnaby was a flower of imperial manhood - see the map of the Empire, the sprig-papered walls and the rose chintz couch.

  13. Hels thank you for that: flower of imperial manhood. A marvellous phrase. There is so much more to this painting than first meets the eye
    and I was amazed when I looked at his adventurous and finally tragic career.


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