Charles Beauclerk was the eldest son of Charles II and the actress Eleanor, or Nell, Gwyn. He was born on May 8, 1670. The king, who had no legitimate children, was fond of his offspring by Gwyn and treated them with marked attention. In 1676, the boy was created Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford, and on January 10, 1684, he became the first Duke of St. Albans. A soldier from an early age, he was present at the taking of Belgrade in 1688 and later served directly under William III, who held him in high esteem. In 1694, the duke married Lady Diana de Vere, a famous beauty who was the daughter and sole heiress of the last Duke of Oxford. The couple had eight children, all sons. Their third son, Vere, married Mary, daughter of Thomas Chambers and Lady Mary Berkeley, of whom the Museum owns a portrait by Kneller (96.30.6). St. Albans died at Bath and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The painting has been accepted as autograph by David Piper (verbal opinion of 1962) and by J. Douglas Stewart (1990), but Stewart suggested that the sitter may be misidentified, as the inscription does not name him Duke of St. Albans, a title he had held since the age of thirteen. The only confirmed portrait shows the duke as a child, with his brother, in robes of state (National Portrait Gallery, London). A miniature traditionally believed to represent him is of a slightly older boy, wearing a breastplate, a falling lace collar, and a full wig (Royal Collection). Neither sitter bears a compelling resemblance to the individual in the Museum's portrait. Two pictures were sold at auction as portraits of the first duke of St. Albans: a half-length painting of a boy with a dog attributed to Michael Dahl (Christie's, London, March 25, 1966, no. 111) and a work signed and dated "Kneller 1703" (Sotheby's, London, June 30, 2005, no. 37, ill.).
If the inscription on the Museum's canvas is correct in identifying the sitter as Charles Beauclerk, a date between 1690 and 1695, when St. Albans was twenty-five and newly married, seems appropriate. The present portrait would have complemented one by Kneller of the duke’s wife that is presumed lost but the composition of which is preserved in a print by John Smith (National Portrait Gallery, London). The broad, open, and highly accomplished brushwork is a hallmark of Kneller’s more personal style. The state is good, and the frame seems to be original.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]