The picture is first recorded in 1923, on the London art market, as a portrait of "General Blyth." No trace of such an individual having been found, it is likely that one of the dealers who had it for sale changed the name to that of General Thomas Bligh (1685–1775), a career army officer from Rathmore, County Meath. The sitter is not Bligh, however, and no other identification had been proposed until 2010, when Hugh Belsey identified him as John Hobart (1723–1793), 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire.
The earl, of Blicking, in Norfolk, inherited at thirty-three and married, in 1761, a woman whose large fortune contributed to the renovation of his great Jacobean family house. The year after his first wife’s death in 1768, he married Caroline, sister of Thomas Conolly (1738–1803), who was among the wealthiest men in Ireland. Buckinghamshire served as British envoy to St. Petersburg and, briefly, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. By his second wife he had three sons who died in infancy.
Buckinghamshire engaged James Wyatt to design a new state room for Blicking in 1778. There he installed an immense tapestry representing Peter the Great, an equestrian portrait of George II, and, at either side of the chimneypiece, full-length portraits by Gainsborough of himself and his wife in robes of state. These were completed in time for the 1784 exhibition of the Royal Academy. They are still in situ. The present canvas, a three-quarter-length of the earl in state dress, and the full-length were presumably painted at the same time and show the sitter’s head in the same position.
The coat is of a sort worn at the court of George III in the early 1780s.
[2011; adapted from Ref. Baetjer 2009]