Art and Emo Court


1708 – 1787



John Dawson, 1st Earl of Portarlington

(courtesy 7th Earl of Portarlington)


“Foreign travel completes the education of the English gentleman” wrote Edward Gibbon in Rome in 1765. The English and Irish gentry moved south in a steady stream on the Grand Tour throughout most of the 18th century, hoping to complete their education in the classical antiquities of Italy. Once they had arrived in Rome, one of the most important things to do – if they had the money – was to have their portrait painted by Pompeo Batoni.  Batoni produced portraits of around 200 British gentlemen visiting Rome, amongst whom was John Dawson, the 1st Earl of Portarlington.


At the time, Batoni was the most celebrated painter in Rome. The American painter Benjamin West said “When I went to Rome, the Italian artists of that day thought of nothing, looked at nothing, but the work of Pompeo Batoni”.


The portrait (above) was painted in 1769 (when the Earl was aged 25) in Rome, and is signed and dated ‘Pompeo Batoni/Pinxit Romae 1769’. Batoni always offered to his sitters the opportunity to look truly grand, by placing them in classical surroundings of pillars and elegant backdrops, and by painting them in full uniform with sword and medals: the portrait of John Dawson is quite restrained and thoughtful in comparison to many. It is in oils, depicting the Earl half-length, in a green coat with gold braid and cream waistcoat, leaning on a pedestal. It measures 37½ x 28 inches. The portrait would have hung in Emo Court during the residence of the Earls of Portarlington there, and possibly also the portrait (below) of Captain George Damer MP, again painted by Pompeo Batoni. In this half-length portrait, Captain Damer is wearing a breastplate and sword and scarlet coat, his right hand rests on a helmet, and he stands before a draped portico. The picture is of a similar size to the portrait of the 1st Earl of Portarlington.



Captain George Damer MP

(courtesy 7th Earl of Portarlington)


A prevailing theory in the 18th century was that culture came from the south of Europe. This idea was sometimes carried to amazing extremes: the Bishop of Derry requested the architect John Soane to design “a classical dog kennel, as I intend to build one for the hounds of my eldest son”. A London dining club – the Society of Dilettanti, founded in 1732 – allowed membership only to gentlemen who had visited Italy. Many of Batoni’s sitters were members of this society which promoted Italian opera and funded archaeological expeditions.


It is of interest that, in the library of Mr Cholmeley-Harrison at Emo Court, there is an auction catalogue (undated) from Knight Frank and Rutley London. The catalogue shows a portrait of Sir Edward Dering 6th Bart, a distant relative of Mr Cholmeley-Harrison, painted by Pompeo Batoni. It was sold for £2152, but not to the last owner of Emo Court. (See below)


Sir Edward Dering 6th Bart