Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1908
102 3/8 in. x 59 in. (2600 mm x 1500 mm) image size
Purchased through the Art Fund, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the Lord Marcus Sieff bequest, the Wolfson Foundation through the Art Fund, Lord Rothschild, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, the Headley Trust, the Linbury Trust, Sir Harry Djanogly, the Clore Duffield Foundation, the Ancaster Trust, the Sternberg Charitable Foundation and several other donations, 2002
Primary Collection
NPG 6620

On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

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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

Sargent's portrait was commissioned by subscription from members of the Carlton Club and exhibited at the 1908 Royal Academy exhibition. Showing Balfour full length, within a classicised interior, Sargent employs the full apparatus of his later, grand manner, style of portraiture. The Spectator's critic noted: 'the mastery of the whole thing is astonishing, and we ask ourselves could anyone else now place the figure so surely and convincingly before us?' Balfour is shown as a commanding and highly intelligent presence, looking directly at the viewer, but the crossed legs and right arm draped languidly along the cornice also suggest the reserved aesthete. For G.K. Chesterton, reviewing the 1908 Academy, it was 'by far the most important thing in the Exhibition', one of Sargent's 'most sagacious' portraits and a summation not just of the man but of the age. 'It is the portrait of a philosopher and a statesman - a sad philosopher and a sad statesman', Chesterton wrote: 'in its presence we feel the sober truths about the English governing class, its wide and ruinous scepticism, its remaining pillars of responsibility and reason'.

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Events of 1908back to top

Current affairs

Henry Asquith replaces Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Liberal leader and Prime Minister, with David Lloyd George taking control of the Exchequer. Asquith and Lloyd George embark on a bold programme of social reform, laying the foundations of the Welfare State, introducing government pensions this year and later a system of National Insurance.
The first aeroplane for the British army is built by the American, Samuel Cody.

Art and science

E.M. Forster's novel A Room with a View is published, following the experiences of a young woman, Lucy Honeychurch, in the repressed culture of Edwardian England.
The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles first uses the term 'cubism' to refer to a landscape painting by Georges Braque.


King Carlos of Portugal and his heir, Prince Luis Filipe, are killed by assassins from the Republican trying to provoke a revolution. Carlos I, unpopular because of his extravagant lifestyle and extramarital affairs, was succeeded by his younger son, Manuel, the last monarch of the Braganza dynasty.
Following the death of the Guangxu Emperor in China, his two year old nephew replaces him, becoming the the last Manchu emperor of China.

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