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Reynolds painted the portrait of Lord Cathcart (1721-1776) – on which this print was based – in 1753-5, following the sitter’s involvement in a number of famous battles. In his depiction of Lord Cathcart, Reynolds uses chiaroscuro to great effect, conveying ideas and meanings associated with his subject, and playing on the dichotomy between public and private. To this end, he illuminates the majority of Cathcart’s face – portraying him in his public, active role as a British soldier and diplomat. The right side of his face is completely exposed to the light, dramatically highlighting the crescent-shaped black silk patch on his cheek, which covers the wound he suffered when shot in the face during the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, where he served as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland.

By focusing pictorial attention on Cathcart’s war wound, Reynolds emphasises Cathcart’s public identity as a war hero – but the artist also alludes to the soldier’s more private persona by casting the left side of his face into shadow. Reynolds extends this shadow into the indoor setting, which suggests that we are being offered a glimpse of Cathcart within a private domain, rather than the public arena of the battlefield. He is framed by thick, hanging drapery which not only accentuates the enclosed feel of the interior, but, as Mark Hallett argues, also seems to ‘have been deliberately parted for him’, showing Cathcart to ‘be emerging out of the shadows’. Yet, we are given the impression that Cathcart retains ultimate control over his image – although we are invited to enjoy a privileged glimpse of his private persona, he could close the curtain, on which his hand rests, at any moment. Indeed, Cathcart was initially ‘disagreeably surprised’ with Reynolds’s representation of his figure, and after ‘some reasoning’ with the artist, he sat to him again – until he considered the picture ‘much improved’.

Arguably the architectural surroundings could refer to Cathcart’s time in captivity in France, held as a hostage along with the Earl of Sussex – resulting from the delivery of the Cape of Breton to the King of France, as agreed in the Treaty of Aix-la Chapelle. The General Advertiser reported at the time that they were expecting ‘the news every moment of the conclusion of that Great Work’, which reveals that the negotiating of Cape Breton was perceived to be a great success. Consequently, the reference to this battle acts as a reminder that Cathcart not only played an integral part within it – but also recalls his noble, personal sacrifice. Pictorially, the stone balustrade – which works to separate Cathcart from the intrusive presence of the viewer – along with the enigmatic, confined, shadowy setting, further evokes the conditions of his past imprisonment. Cathcart’s outstretched left hand is brightly illuminated, as if he were extending an invitation to the viewer to enter his private domain, breaking the restrictive barrier of the balustrade. His left arm and part of his torso are similarly highlighted, showing the intricate detail of his uniform, confirming his aristocratic status. The arch in the backdrop to the right of the composition emerges out of the shadows and could be aligned to the classical triumphal arch, further alluding to his victories.

By Helena Davies