A story in 100 objects
Yes, this is a painting of two brothers despite the appearance of the younger boy. Richard was the elder son and George the younger son of the first Baron Edgcumbe. The painting was completed around 1725 by Jonathan Richardson the Elder who was one of the leading portrait artists of his time.
Within upper and middle class families of the 18th century dresses were regarded as children’s wear and as a symbol of childhood, so boys as well as girls wore dresses and their hair long until they were ‘breeched’. Then they started to wear scaled down versions of their father’s clothes – waistcoats shirts, breeches, stockings and leather shoes. There was no set age for ‘breeching’ but most boys were ‘breeched’ by the age of 8.
The ‘breeching’ of a boy was a rite of passage. The boy left the world of the nursery and came more under the influence of his father than his mother. He gained a higher status in the household and was expected to begin learning about the running of the estate, especially if he was the elder son and heir.
‘Breeching’ was celebrated in families and the boy often received lavish gifts to mark the occasion. Given that this painting dates from around 1725 it may have been commissioned to celebrate the ‘breeching’ of the heir to the Edgcumbe Baronetcy as Richard would have been 8 or 9 at the time and George 4 or 5.
Richard became the Second Baron. He was charming and witty as well as a notorious gambler and womaniser. He never married but had a string of mistresses and left four illegitimate children when he died aged 45.
George hadn’t expected to inherit. He joined the navy at age 13 and had a distinguished naval career. He became the Third Baron following his brother’s death. He was created a Viscount by King George III in 1781 and an Earl in 1789. George was interested in history and science and was a patron of the arts. His wife, Emma, was a colourful character – an eccentric and another notorious Edgcumbe gambler.
“Richard became the Second Baron. He was charming and witty as well as a notorious gambler and womaniser. He never married but had a string of mistresses and left four illegitimate children when he died aged 45.”