Sir Frank (Athelstane) Swettenham

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Frank (Athelstane) Swettenham

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1904
67 1/4 in. x 43 1/2 in. (1708 mm x 1105 mm)
Bequeathed by Sir Frank (Athelstane) Swettenham, 1971
Primary Collection
NPG 4837

On display at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait and landscape painter and muralist. Artist or producer associated with 72 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait of the colonial administrator, Sir Frank Swettenham, was painted in 1903 by the leading society portraitist of the time, the American artist John Singer Sargent. It was commissioned by the Malay Straits Association of London who oversaw the governance of a British colonial group of territories located in Southeast Asia. Swettenham, who was responsible for the development of roads, railways and social services in the Malay States, is shown here surrounded by accessories evoking his Far Eastern career: a huge globe just visible in the top left-hand corner hovers over a chair draped with the magnificent Malayan brocades that he collected. He wears his white uniform and adopts an elegant, Van Dyckian pose, leaning against the chair and gripping it with his right hand, his claw-like fingers providing a note of tension.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG x97938: Sir Frank (Athelstane) Swettenham (after)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 37
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 37
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 58 Read entry

    A portrait of the colonial administrator Frank Swettenham (1850-1946) was commissioned in 1903 from the leading society portraitist of the time, the American artist Sargent, by the Malay Straits Association of London. This portrait began as a copy of an earlier full-length portrait by one of Sargent’s copyists, but Sargent took over the painting and Swettenham gave fresh sittings. He is shown surrounded by accessories evoking his career: a huge globe just visible in the top left-hand corner hovers over a chair draped with the magnificent South East Asian textiles that he collected. Swettenham wears his white uniform and adopts an elegant, Van Dyckian pose, leaning against the chair and gripping it with his right hand, his claw-like fingers providing a note of tension.

  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 103
  • Gibson, Robin, Painting The Century: 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000, 2000 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 26 October 2000 to 4 February 2001), p. 59 Read entry


    Portrait and landscape painter, born in Italy of American parents; attended the Academy in Florence; first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1878 before moving to England around 1885 and establishing himself as a portraitist to high society; by 1907 he had largely given up portraiture for landscape and decorative painting, producing murals for the city of Boston.


    The diplomat Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946) spent most of his professional life in Malaya, after entering the service of the Straits Settlement in 1871. After an extremely successful colonial career, he was Governor if the Malay States from 1901 until his retirement in 1904. At a dinner of the Straits Association in London in 1903, he was invited to have his portrait painted for the Victoria Hall, Singapore, by an artist of his own choosing. Sargent, by this time the most highly esteemed portrait painter both in Britain and the US, was an obvious choice: he produced a flattering image of colonial magnificence of which its subject can scarcely have dreamed. In his early fifties (relatively young for retirement by modern standards), Swettenham is presented at the height of his powers and influence, in a seductive image of both imperial authority and masculine supremacy. His immaculate white uniform and Van Dyckian pose emphasise the trimness of his figure and his nonchalant charm.

    The original painting (now in the Singapore History Museum) shows Swettenham at full-length in a slightly different pose, standing on a leopard-skin rug; it was exhibited at the New Gallery, London, in 1905 before being sent overseas. The National Portrait Gallery painting, smaller in every way, was originally a copy made by an assistant. By this stage, however, artist and sitter had become good friends, and Sargent entirely repainted the copy, receiving further sittings for the head and altering the uniform (in conformity with new regulations for governors’ uniforms issued by the Colonial Office). If it is tempting to view this portrait as the epitome of empire, it is nevertheless, with its golden glow, also an image on which the sun appears to be slowly setting. Two years later, Sargent began refusing commissions for most painter portraits and the challenge of representing society in the manner in which it wished to be seen. For the remainder of his career in this field, he restricted himself almost entirely to rapidly executed charcoal drawings.


    J. Lomax and R. Ormond, John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age, exhibition catalogue, Leeds Art Galleries and National Portrait Gallery, 1979, pp 66-7.

    E. Killmurray and R. Ormond, John Singer Sargent, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1998, pp 166-7.

  • McConkey, Kenneth, Edwardian portraits : images of an age of opulence, 1987, p. 173 number 54
  • Redford, Bruce, John Singer Sargent and the art of allusion, 2016, p. 44
  • Sargent, John Singer, John Singer Sargent, 2018, p. 121
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 601
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 183 Read entry

    Gilt compo on pine, mitred and keyed (the keys of oak, 1 3⁄ 4 inches wide, the main hollow water gilt and burnished on a red bole, the surface then punched with an ¿-shaped punch, the dying cracks in the compo mouldings occurring at the joins in the castings. 6 inches wide. With the label: C. M. May & Sons,/Gilder & Picture Frame Manufacturer./STEAM WORKS - 18, St Anne's Court, Soho./PICTURES CLEANED, LINED AND RESTORED.

    Sir Frank Swettenham, governor of the Malay States, commissioned this second version of his official portrait and bequeathed it to the National Portrait Gallery. The Spanish seventeenth-century style frame of reverse section with foliage centres and corners, made by Sargent's framemaker, C. M. May, is identical to the frame on Sargent's exactly contemporary portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, later Viscountess D'Abernon (Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama).

    Sargent used a wide range of revival frame styles but, like William Orpen, he experimented with Spanish-style frames, then quite a novelty. This taste had perhaps been encouraged by the first comprehensive exhibition of Spanish art at the New Gallery in 1895 but in any case Sargent was one of those portrait painters, like Whistler and Lavery, who had a deep-seated admiration for Velazquez and Spanish art.1

    1 For the late nineteenth-century taste for Spanish art see Allan Braham, El Greco to Goya. The Taste for Spanish Paintings in Britain and Ireland, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, 1981, pp 35-44.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 180 Read entry

    Frank Swettenham arrived in Singapore to join the Straits civil service in January 1871. From then until his early retirement in 1904 his career was entirely bound up in the colonial administration of the Malay states and he was instrumental in their federation in 1895. He became resident-general in 1896 and governor of the Straits Settlements in 1901. Swettenham oversaw the construction of roads and railways and the founding of modern Kuala Lumpur, where he based his residency. Professionally competitive and socially ambitious, Swettenham led a difficult private life while also writing extensively on Malay affairs and culture and becoming an accomplished watercolour artist.

    When the Straits Association decided in 1903 to commission a portrait of Swettenham for the Victoria Hall, Singapore, it was the sitter who suggested John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) as the artist. The original, still in Singapore, shows him full-length. A copy was to be made for Swettenham himself but in the end Sargent repainted and redesigned the portrait, taking additional sittings for the face. This portrait shows Swettenham in the full pomp of office, a globe above his head, his right hand clutching one of the rich Malay textiles that he collected.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1904back to top

Current affairs

Britain and France sign the Entente Cordiale, an agreement which resolves a number of longstanding colonial disputes (including a Declaration respecting Egypt and Morocco), signalling growing anxiety about the risk of future German aggression. Although not militarily binding, the agreement, negotiated between French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé, and Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary, establishes a diplomatic understanding between the two countries.

Art and science

J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is first performed at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. Charting the fantastical adventures of Peter, 'the boy who never grew up', the Darling children and the villainous Captain Hook in Neverland, many adaptations have been made of the story.
The painter Gwen John settles in Paris, where she becomes the lover and model of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, modelling for his sculpture Muse.


Japan attacks the Russian Navy at Port Arthur, sparking the Russo-Japanese war. Hostility was prompted by the rival imperialist ambitions of the Russian and Japanese empires in Manchuria, North East China, and Korea, considered by Japan to be an essential buffer against colonisation by Western Powers. Japan wins a series of victories against Russia which transforms the balance of power in East Asia, and undermines the Tsar's rule in Russia.

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