Richard Rothwell, 1800-1868
The Rt Hon William Huskisson, MP 1770-1830
The Rt Hon William Huskisson, MP
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (76 x 64 cm.)


Lord Egremont


There are 3 known portraits by Rothwell of William Huskisson, one is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the other is in the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection, Westminster and the third is this newly discovered portrait. This portrait is partialy unfinnished and is likely to be the portrait mentioned in the National Portrait Galleries archives as being commissioned for Lord Egremont but it remained unfinnished. The artist Richard Rothwell wrote that the first version of this portrait 'was so successful a likeness that it gave much pleasure to the friends of the lamented statesman'.

William Huskisson, (1770–1830), politician, was born on 11 March 1770 at Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire, the eldest of four sons of William Huskisson (1743–1790), gentleman, and his first wife, Elizabeth (c.1743–1774), who was daughter of John Rotton of Oxley, Staffordshire, and his wife, Jane. Thomas Huskisson (1784–1844) was his half-brother. As a young boy Huskisson was sent away to school, in turn to Brewood, in Staffordshire; Albrighton, in Shropshire; and Appleby, in Leicestershire. Following his father's second marriage he was sent in 1783, with his brother Richard, to be educated by their mother's uncle, Richard Gem, who had settled as a doctor in Paris in 1762. Under his guidance Huskisson received an unorthodox education which would later mark him out from his political colleagues. For Gem's friends included the freethinking Baron d'Holbach and other philosophes, as well as Franklin and Jefferson. In the light of subsequent ultra-tory charges that he had been a Jacobin, Huskisson prudently claimed that his ideas had been formed in England. But it is difficult to believe that he was untouched by the intellectual currents of late Enlightenment France. He witnessed the fall of the Bastille, was an early critic of Burke's ‘strange romantic doctrines’ (Melville, 9), and was befriended by the radical poet William Hayley. He made his first public mark as a member of the liberal Société de 1789, contributing in August 1790 a strong criticism of the new French paper currency. The leading light in this club was Condorcet, at whose home Talleyrand claimed Huskisson learned his system of public economy, while it was less credibly rumoured that Madame Condorcet taught him the arts of love. Huskisson's political outlook, albeit subsequently modulated by other influences, retained much in common with that of the French school of political economy of Turgot, Say, and the Idéologues. More importantly for his immediate political career, in late 1790 Huskisson became private secretary to the British ambassador, Earl Gower, sharing intimately in the événements of the early revolution before returning to London in September 1792, after Britain severed diplomatic relations with France.

Under the patronage of Gower, Huskisson was introduced to Pitt and Dundas. His grasp of French as well as his administrative promise led to his appointment as superintendent of the aliens office in January 1793, overseeing arrangements for the influx of French émigrés and helping to set up Britain's modern secret service. In July 1794 Huskisson moved with Dundas and Nepean to the War Office, where he became chief clerk. He had impressed his seniors so much that when Nepean subsequently moved to the Admiralty he was able to lay claim to his post as under-secretary in March 1795, a remarkable promotion for a 24-year-old recommended by talent rather than by pedigree. In 1796, through Gower's friend the earl of Carlisle, Huskisson was elected to parliament for Morpeth. It was also at Gower's Wimbledon home that Huskisson first met Canning, forming a strong personal attachment that became the lodestar of his later political trajectory. But his first loyalty lay to Pitt and Dundas, while his administrative responsibilities brought him to the heart of the war effort against France, including close involvement in military planning and strategy as well as counter-revolutionary activity.

Huskisson's official success was not yet complemented by financial security. In 1793 he had sold his father's Oxley estates for £13,500, and received a further £2500 on the death of his brother Richard in 1794. Imprudently as it turned out, he lent these sums to his Paris-based friend the banker Walter Boyd, incurring charges of stockjobbing and eventually losing some £14,000. This was largely made good by the £10,000 he inherited on the death of Gem in 1800. Having also secured a government pension and the agency to the Cape of Good Hope, Huskisson had sufficient prospects to marry, on 6 April 1799, Eliza Emily (1777–1856), the daughter of Admiral Mark Milbanke and his wife, Mary Webber. Their marriage was childless, but provided the sometimes neurotic and paranoic Huskisson with welcome domestic tranquillity. Huskisson also inherited from Gem substantial landed property, including the mortgage on Eartham, in Sussex, then occupied by his friend Hayley. Eartham provided Huskisson with landed status and an indispensable venue for political entertaining. Tall and ungainly in appearance, and often cold and dry in his public manner, he was a ready and occasionally playful host, a good shot, and enjoyed country house visits. Even so, social routine was always subordinate to Huskisson's overriding ethic of hard work and public duty, designed to secure stability and prosperity for Britain at a time of revolutionary political and economic change.

As one of Pitt's confidential group, Huskisson resigned in January 1801, receiving a pension of £1200 p.a. and the lucrative Ceylon agency (in place of that of the Cape). But his career now reached a hiatus, for while he toyed with taking office under Addington, he found himself without a seat in parliament, Morpeth having passed to Carlisle's son. Not wishing to owe his seat to the new ministry, he unsuccessfully contested Dover, with the encouragement of Pitt, losing £3000 in the process, and receiving much adverse publicity as Cobbett's Political Register exposed his dealings with Boyd. Huskisson, a fervent admirer of Pitt's ‘superior virtue and superior sense’ (Fay, 71), was rewarded on Pitt's return to office in May 1804 by appointment as joint secretary to the Treasury. By this time he had found a seat in parliament, this time for Liskeard, which was placed at his disposal by Lord Eliot. While not a prominent orator in the Commons, he played a leading part in securing the important Warehousing Act of 1804. He saw Pitt's approaching death in January 1806 as ‘the end of all things’ (Melville, 59), and when Grenville succeeded Pitt in February 1806 Huskisson once more found himself in opposition.

Set loose by the death of Pitt’ (Thorne, 272), Huskisson attached himself politically to Canning, one of a number of potential leaders of ‘Mr Pitt's friends’. Besides their early friendship and their temperamental complementarity, they had recently worked together when Canning was treasurer of the navy in 1804–6. But Huskisson also set out to make an independent mark in the Commons, proposing in July 1806 his scheme for the rationalization of government accounting. When the Portland ministry succeeded that of Grenville, he returned in April 1807 to his position at the Treasury, and was elected for the Treasury borough of Harwich. Acknowledged as the leading Pittite financial expert, he played an important part in ‘cleaning up’ relations between the government and the Bank of England, and in supervising Ireland's finances. Yet, once again Huskisson's stay in office proved short-lived. For having attached himself to Canning, he proved disinterested and loyal when Canning's bid both to oust Castlereagh from the ministry and to take the lead himself resulted in the infamous duel between the two rivals, and to Canning's and Huskisson's resignations in September 1809.

Huskisson was confined to the political wilderness for the next five years, but the pattern of his future career was now set. First, his prospects for office remained tied fast to those of Canning. They acted in concert in parliament, while Huskisson declined office in 1809, in 1811, and, above all, in 1812 in what many saw as a factious refusal to join Lord Liverpool's re-creation of the Pittite coalition. This was a crucial turning point—with Huskisson's career now ‘thrown out of the course’ (Huskisson to Canning, 25 April 1821, BL, Add. MS 38742, fol. 206) and men he considered his juniors promoted ahead of him. In addition, having forfeited Treasury support Huskisson needed a constituency, which he eventually found at Chichester, conveniently near Eartham. Second, Huskisson consolidated his reputation as the ‘first financier of the age’ (Speeches, 54). In particular, he emerged as a leading bullionist, attacking the evils of depreciation of the currency following the wartime resort to paper money in 1797 and advocating the speedy resumption of cash payments. Huskisson believed that only convertibility would remedy the evils of inflation, which he regarded as not only ruinous to creditors but possibly revolutionary in its consequences. He played a major part in the proceedings of the famous bullion committee in 1810, and published his important pamphlet, The Question Concerning the Depreciation of our Currency Stated and Examined, in October 1810, which soon went through seven editions. In 1811 he also joined Canning and others in defending the report in the Quarterly Review. He now became the leading critic of Vansittart's management of the economy, displaying the financial grasp that marked him out by 1814 as Pitt's administrative heir among the tories, while in parliament he had secured an important niche for himself as Canning's leading lieutenant. Yet Huskisson was not a politician to thrive in opposition, for he was a man of business par excellence. It was to be Lord Liverpool who now set him to constructive work.

In 1814 Canning, on accepting office under Liverpool, had stipulated that Huskisson should also be offered a post. Eventually he was appointed first commissioner of the woods and forests in August. This office entailed important responsibilities which Huskisson undertook with typical conscientious devotion to detail and duty—perambulating the king's forests and assisting in the rebuilding of later Georgian London. His career in that post might therefore appear, as some have seen it, as relatively ‘thankless’ (Thorne, 277). But in reality he rapidly became a pivotal figure, one of the group of advisers upon whom Liverpool depended for the formulation and execution of detailed policy, ‘the little committee by which all the parliamentary business has been settled’ (Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot, 19 n.2). For Liverpool, policy making was essentially a task for those outside the cabinet, and Huskisson felt he was treated ‘not as belonging to a political party, but simply as chairman of an executive board’. This irked him, as he saw himself as a career politician, and a colleague in no way less valuable than socially superior but ineffectual cabinet ministers. Yet however frustrated he became, Huskisson remained indefatigable, and his imprint was fundamental to the economic and financial policies of Liverpool's government.

Huskisson's mark was first felt with regard to the corn law of 1815, when he supported a graduated scale of duties on corn as the best means to ensure stability of supply. In 1814 he had composed crucial parts of the Commons' committee report on corn, and by February 1815 he and Liverpool had ‘forged a “cordial” and lifelong alliance on economic policy’ (Hilton, Corn, 12). In deference to Huskisson's views, Vansittart abandoned his own proposal for a small fixed duty on corn in favour of Huskisson's sliding scale, but eventually this was also replaced by duties of 80s. on foreign corn and 67s. on imperial corn. Huskisson also secured the free warehousing of corn, vital as a spur to investment in the corn trade and as a guarantee of supplies in case of scarcity, a fear reinforced by Huskisson's experience of conditions in pre-revolutionary France.

If the corn law was for Huskisson a necessary part of the transition from war to peace, far more vital was the return to sound money. From 1816, with Canning's support, he crusaded for a swift return to cash payments, and when Peel's committee was set up in 1819 he seized the initiative, ensuring that the committee viewed the question simply as a matter of timing, not of principle. In drawing up its report he pressed for immediate resumption, but was happy with the compromise outcome of mid-1823, a date advanced by the Bank of England to 1821. Huskisson also aimed to put government finances back on what he considered a proper footing; this included an effective sinking fund (a touchstone of loyalty to Pitt) and stringent government retrenchment, including that of royal expenditure. Huskisson won an important victory when the cabinet in May 1819 endorsed his scheme for devoting a £5 million surplus to debt redemption. Through such policies Huskisson had won the ‘undergame’ for Liverpool's ear, defeating the Vansittart–Herries–Rothschild faction—but ensuring a residue of long-running resentment in these circles. Yet Huskisson had clear long-term goals in view—to stabilize existing social relations, to cut the government free from the monied power and the Bank of England, and to make London the chief financial centre of the world. He consolidated his victory in 1822, when he carried an amendment that parliament should not alter the standard of value, ensuring that the gold standard would last (until 1914) as a symbol of fiscal and political rectitude.

In 1821 Huskisson also returned to the question of the corn laws, taking the ‘labouring oar’ (Melville, 138) in the select committee of that year and producing, with Ricardo, a report which foreshadowed eventual free trade in corn. This marked a substantial change in Huskisson's views on the corn laws, for he favoured abandoning the inefficient margins of cultivation, accepting Ricardo's law of diminishing returns, while looking to Europe to feed industrial Britain's growing population if suitably encouraged by the lowering of Britain's protective duties. Huskisson accepted that Britain's economic future was geared to manufacturing exports and the vicissitudes of the international economy. This perspective would vitally underpin his subsequent work at the Board of Trade, while it also ended the prospects of increased agricultural protection, further alienating Huskisson from the strong tory rural interest.

By 1822 Huskisson, a tireless and efficient administrator, admirably deployed by the skilful leadership of Lord Liverpool, had imparted a new decisiveness to tory economic policy. But however devoted an executive politician, Huskisson was also driven by ambition which looked to the highest offices of state, hitherto forfeited by his loyalty to Canning. It was therefore with Canning's prospective return to high office in 1821–2 that Huskisson looked for his own elevation to the cabinet, and the end of ‘nearly eight years of lingering expectation’ (Melville, 134). In the extensive political intrigues of 1821–2 Huskisson had set his heart on the Board of Control, but this was denied him. Canning urged him to accept the Board of Trade, an office eminently congenial to Huskisson, although one he believed should be accompanied by cabinet rank. But he was kept out of the cabinet, largely because Liverpool, irritated by his desire for promotion, kept him back in order to accommodate Charles Wynn, a member of the Grenvillite squad, which had lately adhered to the ministry. This episode induced much angry self-pity and heightened Huskisson's strong sense of social inferiority, but he was eventually assuaged by the promise of the next cabinet vacancy or admission after one year. In February 1823 Huskisson therefore became president of the Board of Trade, with the treasurership of the navy, before eventually joining the cabinet in November of the same year.

Huskisson's work at the Board of Trade, long hailed as central both to ‘liberal toryism’ and to Britain's gradual adoption of free trade, was based firmly on the economic and financial policies he had put in place between 1814 and 1823. Those policies had been shaped largely by principles drawn from Smith and Ricardo, although Huskisson, like many of his contemporaries, occasionally attended the sermons of the evangelical Thomas Chalmers. But Huskisson was no doctrinaire, and his work at the board, as even his critic Herries noted, ‘steered a steady course’ between practicality and abstraction (Hilton, Corn, 182). He built purposefully on the work of colleagues such as Wallace and Robinson, but now put the board at the centre of the governmental machine. Significantly, too, in 1823 Huskisson succeeded Canning as MP for Liverpool. He had previously deputized for him on Liverpool parliamentary business, forming valuable links with merchants such as John Gladstone, and he was well equipped to consolidate mercantile support for Lord Liverpool's government as well as to advance his constituents' local concerns. But Huskisson entered office with the needs of a rapidly industrializing state uppermost in mind. Those needs dictated the removal of impediments to the growth of domestic industries and the export economy. In the first place, this led to an overhaul of the tariff. This began with the equalization of British and Irish duties in 1823, and was followed by a policy of substituting moderately protective duties for prohibitory ones. Thus silk and gloves were now admitted at duties of 30 per cent, arousing considerable opposition against Huskisson. Duties on raw materials were also lowered, and many export duties and bounties were abolished, although with significant exceptions, such as those on machinery and the whale and herring fisheries. With the assistance of Deacon Hume at the customs department, Huskisson codified the tariff under eight heads and repealed over 1000 separate customs acts. Through such measures he sought to create a self-regulating economic order, removing, so far as prudent, the hand of the state from the workings of the economy. In this spirit, in 1824 he moved to abolish the Spitalfields Acts regulating wages in the silk industry and to repeal the combination laws, which had largely prohibited trade union activity. The latter were in 1825 speedily, if partially, reinstated, restoring some of the prerogatives of capital but also achieving a modus vivendi with labour that lasted until 1871.

Second, Huskisson undertook the first major overhaul of the Navigation Acts, in place since the seventeenth century and unmodified, despite what he interpreted as the American revolt against them in the 1770s. In 1822 the new Latin American states had been allowed to ship directly to Britain, and the United States had been allowed to trade directly with the West Indies. But Huskisson now contemplated a far greater departure from the mercantilist past by offering equality of duties on goods and shipping to any country that agreed to grant the same to British shipping. The Reciprocity of Duties Act of 1823 led therefore to a series of treaties, especially with Prussia, France, and the northern European states. However, importantly Huskisson reserved the right to retaliate against those countries which retained discriminatory duties against British shipping, and put this into effect against both the Netherlands and the United States. He met much resistance from the shipping interest (which later attributed depression to his changes), but also much support from many mercantile groups, who saw in reciprocity and retaliation a means towards ‘real free trade’. Huskisson also sought avidly to open new markets to British goods, especially in Latin America. His commercial policy formed an integral part of Canningite diplomacy, involving him in important reforms of the consular service and extensive negotiations with the United States concerning the slave trade, the St Lawrence navigation, and the North American border.

Third, Huskisson's policies had important implications for the British empire. On the one hand, he had consciously dismantled the bastions of ‘our ancient colonial system’, but on the other he sought to reshape a new empire of trade and colonization. As its agent he had seen Ceylon as a prototypical ‘small spearhead of the imperial economy’ (Fay, 99), and at the Board of Trade he had undertaken a close scrutiny of colonial legislation. Above all, in his commercial policy Huskisson had retained the principle of imperial preference, with regard to Canadian timber, and in 1825 he had extended this to Canadian corn. Much more sensitive was the issue of preference for the West Indies, for this was intimately linked with the slavery question. While not keen to promote immediate abolition, Huskisson accepted that the West Indies would need to make a painful withdrawal from slavery, encouraged by the gradual reduction of preference. His brief spell as colonial secretary made clearer his vision of empire, with support for the gradual ending of slavery and the extension of colonization. He also reinstituted the Passenger Acts, whose repeal he had undertaken while at the Board of Trade. A strong case can therefore be made for the view that Huskisson was par excellence an ‘imperial statesman’ with a vision of Britain as the dynamic centre of an expanding colonial horizon, with empire offering tangible economic and political resources to the British state.

Huskisson's vigorous reforms left him increasingly open to attack, partly because he did occasionally stumble (as he complained, he had so much to do compared with other ministers, it was not surprising if he sometimes came unstuck, as on the Combination Acts in 1824 or the budget in 1826). Above all, they provided an obvious target in the wake of the commercial crisis of late 1825. His tory critics now rounded on the ‘French Jacobin in the English cabinet’, venting, as Creevey put it, ‘the rage of the old Tory high flyers against the liberal jaw of Canning and Huskisson’ (Creevey Papers, 2.99). Huskisson had, in fact, predicted the financial panic, but now resolutely defended cash payments against attempts to suspend them, while encouraging the bank to discount liberally to surmount the crisis. But this panic also brought renewed long-term fears for the convertibility of the pound. Ironically this now led Huskisson to support a bimetallic standard in order to broaden the monetary foundations of the currency. His scheme was to be revived by late nineteenth-century supporters of bimetallism, but in the late 1820s, as the bank came under the control of directors who leaned towards stricter monetary management, this proved unnecessary.

Corn therefore remained the outstanding issue for the liberal tories to resolve. In August 1825 Huskisson had edged the cabinet towards allowing more bonded corn onto the market in advance of an attack on the corn laws themselves, but the panic of 1825 and the coming election forestalled further action, other than once more allowing in bonded corn. After these temporary measures Huskisson's memorandum of October 1826 paved the way for a major reconstruction of the laws, with the goal of equalizing home and foreign prices. He proposed a new sliding scale, but in the light of his unpopularity among the landed tories Canning took the lead in the House of Commons, introducing the new bill on 1 March 1827 and securing an unopposed third reading on 12 April. However, proceedings were interrupted by the elevation of Canning to the premiership following Lord Liverpool's illness and resignation. Huskisson now found himself in a difficult position—for this was his long-awaited opportunity to press for one of the great offices of state. But with much unfinished business at the Board of Trade, not least corn, he somewhat ungraciously relinquished his immediate claims to promotion, ‘I prefer and am determined for the present, to remain at the post which I occupy, because it is that against which an attack is threatened’ (Melville, 122). However, the attack came unexpectedly in the form of an amendment to the Corn Bill by Wellington in the House of Lords. Wellington claimed he was acting with Huskisson's approval, but this purported ‘misunderstanding’ of Huskisson's intentions was probably a deliberate death blow against the bill. Ironically, therefore, the battle over corn had to be fought again, this time within Wellington's cabinet, with the Corn Bill of 1828 embodying a modified version of Huskisson's proposed scale. That scale had aimed to safeguard food supplies by regular imports, with regularity an important guarantee of exchange stability, a line of reasoning still of vital importance for Peel in the 1840s. After the corn law fiasco of 1827 Huskisson, nervous and exhausted, left for a recuperative tour of the continent, only to be stopped in the Austrian Tyrol by news of Canning's approaching death. As leader presumptive of the Canningites, he immediately turned back to England.

Having learned of Canning's death, and of Goderich's (and so not his own) succession, Huskisson rested in Paris with his friend the ambassador Lord Granville, pondering his political future. On his return to London on 26 August, he accepted office as colonial secretary and leader of the House of Commons, thus becoming the mainstay of the government. But the ministry was soon destroyed by a combination of Goderich's inept leadership and the bitter rivalry between Huskisson and Herries. Huskisson enjoyed the brief illusion that he might become prime minister before George IV offered this to the safer aristocratic hands of Wellington in January 1828. To accusations of desertion by the whigs and of personal betrayal by Lady Canning, Huskisson, with his Canningite friends, accepted office under Wellington in January 1828. But the high-tory animus against Huskisson had not receded, and in May 1828 Wellington took the opportunity, inadvertently provided by Huskisson himself, to oust him from the government. This occurred over the East Retford Bill, when Huskisson, having voted against the government, offered as a matter of form, not substance, to resign. Wellington, however, took him at his word, and gratefully rid himself of an uncomfortable colleague. Out of office for the first time since 1814, Huskisson led, in dithering fashion, his small group of followers. He supported in its eventual success the old Canningite cause of Catholic emancipation in 1829, while it has been suggested, although the evidence is far from conclusive, that he employed his new leisure to compose the anonymously published Essays on Political Economy (1830). Yet he did not relinquish the quest for office, especially as the political value of his supporters rose, and he now spoke more frequently and more wide-rangingly in the Commons. When the death of George IV opened up the prospect of office to the whigs, there was even some plausibility in the idea of a Huskisson-led fusion between the ‘liberal’ tories and the ‘liberal’ whigs. More realistically, he was presented with the separate blandishments of the whigs and Wellingtonians. Both parties travelled to the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway in September 1830 in hope of securing his support. Huskisson, dogged throughout his life by accidents and ill health, steeled himself for his visit to Liverpool, dutifully anxious to please his constituents, who had re-elected him in his absence in August. Nor was he without curiosity about a project he had done much to promote. On 15 September, in an atmosphere of technological excitement compounded by political intrigue, Huskisson, having alighted from the train during a stop at Parkside, fell into the path of the oncoming Rocket engine while attempting to re-enter the duke of Wellington's carriage. He died later that evening at the home of the Revd Thomas Blackburne, facing death stoically but with characteristic attention to detail, correcting the signature to the hasty codicil to his will. He was the first fatality of the railway age. His widow reluctantly acceded to civic request, and Huskisson was buried at St James's Church, Liverpool, on 24 September. A monument stands by the track near the scene of the accident.

Huskisson has remained more famed for the manner of his death than for the achievements of his life. Always suspect in high-tory eyes, he was a figure of obloquy for memoirists such as Mrs Arbuthnot and for the supposed victims of his actions, such as the glovemakers of Worcester, whose laments were echoed in Mrs Henry Wood's popular Victorian novels. The rapid publication of his Speeches (1831) by his secretary Edward Leeves, with the assistance of his widow, did much to establish his reputation as a systematic politician, devoted to the establishment of free trade. His policies won the admiration of free-traders such as the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ Ebenezeer Elliot and Richard Cobden. In Liverpool, Huskisson's memory was cherished, both in the Gladstone household—he was an early paragon for the young William—and in the public sphere, with a splendid mausoleum and statue by Gibson. Huskisson's substantial contribution to the making of the modern British state was later overshadowed by those of Peel and Gladstone, but both had been strongly influenced by him, especially through the luminous clarity of his memoranda. This relative neglect was partly remedied by Alexander Brady's William Huskisson and Liberal Reform (1928), but George Veitch's intended biography did not progress beyond article form. In 1931 Lewis Melville edited The Huskisson Papers. Charles Ryle Fay's Huskisson and his Age (1951) offered an affectionate portrait and much discursive information, although a companion volume on Huskisson and Canning was not completed. Huskisson's importance and the pragmatic, rather than doctrinaire, origins of his policies have been more fully appreciated by recent historians, above all by Boyd Hilton in Corn, Cash, Commerce (1977). But alone of major nineteenth-century statesmen, Huskisson has yet to attract a modern biographer.

A. C. Howe DNB

Artist biography

Richard Rothwell, (1800–1868), portrait and genre painter, was born on 20 November 1800 in Athlone, the eldest of the seven children of James Rothwell, and his wife, Elizabeth Holmes. He was trained at the Dublin Society's school (1814–20), where he eventually won a silver medal. His early success can be measured by the fact that he was made a member of the newly founded Royal Hibernian Academy when only twenty-four years old. However, within four years he moved to London, where in 1830 a contemporary commented that ‘Mr Rothwell, it is true, is the fashion and has his door beset with carriages, and fashion like folly, knows no reason and his commissions are numberless’ (Whitley MSS, 10.1309). He continued to exhibit portraits at the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Royal Academy, but in 1831 decided that he needed more exposure to Italian art. After three years in Italy, he returned to London only to be met with indifference.

In 1842 Rothwell married Rosa Marshall, the daughter of a Belfast doctor; they had several children. He lived in Ireland, the United States of America, London, and finally Italy, but never satisfied the potential exhibited on his arrival in London in the late 1820s. His portraits are highly accomplished: fine examples include those of the novelists Gerald Griffin (1830s, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and Mary Shelley (1841, National Portrait Gallery, London). After some twenty years of producing portraits he turned to subject pictures, such as The Poor Mendicants (exh. RA, 1837 and Royal Hibernian Academy, 1838; Victoria and Albert Museum, London), which was engraved in 1841 and distributed by the Royal Irish Union. His involvement with the Royal Irish Art Union gained him the admiration of the Irish nationalist poet Thomas Davis. Rothwell had continued to exhibit in Ireland but beyond the occasional Irish subject, such as Two Children on a Bank, Glendalough behind (1860, National Gallery of Ireland), he stuck to Italianate themes epitomized by his Venetian-inspired semi-nude study Calisto (1850s, National Gallery of Ireland). He considered this painting his masterpiece and was incensed when it was badly hung at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, publishing a vitriolic pamphlet addressed to Lord Granville, the president of the exhibition. While working in Rome he was attacked by fever, and died there on 13 September 1868. His funeral was arranged by Joseph Severn, who is remembered for his portrait of Keats; he was buried next to the poet in the protestant cemetery in Rome.

Fintan Cullen  DNB