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Sir Jeffrey Amherst (1712-97) – the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America – was an important character in the Seven Years War, which took place during the years 1756-63. In this print after Reynolds's 1765half-length portrait, he is depicted in the ribbon and star of the Bath, overlooking a landscape background, in which his troops are picturedin canoes, winding their way down the St Lawrence rapids – en route to the successful siege of Montreal in 1761. Amherst was renowned for his heroic military victories in modern day Canada, having annexed the land with minimal bloodshed. Yet acontroversy had arisen which would undoubtedly have cast a shadow over this portrait, surfacing from the darker side of warfare.Amherst was implicated by contemporary speculation in the first case of biological warfare – the natives of North America were given smallpox-infested blankets to 'remove' them as an obstacle to territorial gain. However, retrospective reports suggest that Amherst was only consulted about the plan, and was never actually actively involved inits enforcement.

That is not, however, to diminish what is plainly represented on the canvas. The portrait's multi-layered nature renders it open to series of interpretations. A close formal analysis of the composition reveals that a series of lines can be traced throughout it. Starting at the bottomcentre of the image, with the mapof Montreal that is spread outin front of him, we can follow the line of light up his baton, through his right arm and the hand on which his chin rests, onto his face, and upwards out of the picture plane. Through this trail of associations – map, hands and mind – we are encouraged to believe that Amherst is considering the map and contemplating his military strategy; an idea which is reinforced by the gesture of his left hand, which reminds us of Reynolds's portraits of meditative intellectuals, such as Horace Walpole (see entry 16). Another diagonal runs from the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, following the course of the river and the distant rowers, through Amherst's gleaming helmet and his gloved right hand, up the burnished surface of his arm encased in metal, and out of the frame. This line, with the active gloved hand at its centre, connects the general with his men and we are led to imagine that he will not hesitate to don his helmet and join them in battle.

The lines which dissect this image in this way therefore serve as a reminder that this is not simply a heroic image of warfare but also one of pause and contemplation – a portrait of a man, an officer and an individual, complex character. The helmetless head and bare hand lend the image a degree of vulnerability.The gloved and un-gloved hands we see here also appear in the print after Reynolds's portrait of John Manners, Marquess of Granby (see entry 11). Indeed, both paintings, which share themes of military heroism and magnanimity, were originally exhibited at the 1766 Society of Artists exhibition. Amherst's portrait is more thanmerely a likeness of a man ina particular context – it also creates a narrative, providing us with a fascinating story about an army officer, his successes and his weaknesses –albeit with perhaps slightly misleading contemporary narratives.

By Charlotte Trapp