Medium: Oil on copper
Size: 62 x 48 cm
Signed: lower right: Stroehling
Private collection, Paris
Born into a Catholic family long-established in Dusseldorf, Peter Eduard Ströhling began his artistic career in Russia, under the patronage of Catherine the Great and then her son Paul I. He later returned to western Europe, working periodically in Italy, France and Austria, where he gained some renown as a portraitist and history painter. Some time in the late 1790s he settled in London where he painted several pictures of the Prince of Wales, future George IV, and other leading figures of contemporary society. His highly finished style, typical of an artist trained in the Dutch tradition, was an obvious contrast to the work of contemporary British portrait painters, although he paid tribute to the portrait conventions of the period. The precise date of his death, presumably in London, has not yet been discovered.
Evidently painted circa 1825, this painting is replete with clues as to the identity of the sitter. He stands in the green and red dress uniform that was adopted by the commanders of the movement for South American independence. A portfolio with the royal monogram (GR) lies at his feet; on the piece of projecting paper is written the names Descabezado and Chamboraso, the former a volcano in Chile, the latter another in Ecuador (famous for having been climbed by Simon Bolivar, during his campaign against the Viceroyalty of Peru). In the foreground an Indian arrow refers to the role of the Indians in the struggle for independence from Spain. The officer’s splendid plumed hat lies by the portfolio. On the right foreground, a skull and a great snake (probably a South American serpent) represent a memento mori, further behind on the sea shore, a tiger or possibly a mis-represented South American mountain lion paces on the beach.
It is the officer’s decorations and the document he holds which presents the viewer with the best clues as to his identity. The star on his left breast is that of the Grand Cross of Charles III, whose Riband is seen projecting from beneath his jacket over his left thigh. We may also see the Grand Cross Riband of the Spanish Order of St Ferdinand on the opposite thigh. He wears what seems to be a cross of Malta, but which may be the Talavera cross, given to those who fought in that battle (but Evans did not actually serve there), or the Spanish Order of St John, awarded in the 1830s. The decoration suspended from a red ribbon may be the Bath, in which he was admitted as a Knight in 1839, but it is less clear from the design. In his right hand he holds a scroll bearing a family tree, with the words Carolus Magnus and an Imperial Crown, demonstrating, one must assume, a belief that he could prove a descent from Charlemagne.
There is only one individual who could fit this profile; the extraordinarily brave and resourceful George de Lacy Evans. Born at Moig, in 1787, his mother was a De Lacy, a family descended in the female line from Charlemagne and which had held important posts under the Norman Kings in Ireland, but which imaginatively claimed to be male line Carolingians. As a second son he was not destined to inherit the modest family estate and, like many among the Irish gentry, he seems to have had an interest in his ancestral heritage, demonstrated by his inclusion of a family tree beginning with Charlemagne. In 1806 he served in India, and then in 1812 joined Wellington’s army in Spain, still as a lieutenant, as he could not afford to purchase a higher commission. By early 1814 he had arrived in the United States where he fought at the battle of Bladensburg and then, after personally capturing the Congress House in Washington, served at the siege of Baltimore (on which occasion Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner”). He ended his career in the war of 1812-14 by being wounded at the Battle of New Orleans.
Immediately upon recovery he returned to active service, fighting at the battle of Waterloo where two horses were shot from underneath him. As a reward for his service in the United States and in the last campaign of the war he was promoted from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel in the course of 1814-15. In 1818, without employment and only the half-pay of a pensioner, he resigned his commission and disappeared temporarily from history, until 1828 when he published a book on the dangers of Russian expansion. In 1831 he was elected to parliament for Westminster as a radical (the seat formerly held by many distinguished reformers, including Lord Cochrane before his succession to the Earldom of Dundonald), making army reform his main cause. In 1832 he joined an official mission to the Emperor of Brazil, and one may speculate that he was chosen because of an earlier South American experience. In 1835, despite the strong opposition of the Duke of Wellington, he formed the British legion to fight in Spain on behalf of the constitutionalist Queen Isabel II, against the Carlists. This campaign was a military triumph, forcing the Carlist leadership into a forty-year exile, and he was rewarded with the Grand Crosses of Charles III and St Ferdinand. Such was his fame upon his return that in 1838 he was knighted, as a knight commander of the Bath, despite the opposition of the senior military establishment. He had kept his seat in Parliament throughout his service in Spain, but lost it in 1841, regaining it in 1846 the year in which he was promoted to Major-General as the cause of military reform gradually gained wider support.
With the outbreak of the Crimean war he was a natural choice for a leadership position, having been known as something of a specialist in Russian affairs since the late 1820s, and in 1852, he was promoted to Lieutenant-General. By now aged sixty-five he nonetheless served in the front line, and was wounded at the Battle of Alma, then served at the Siege of Sebastopol and the Battles of Inkerman and Balaclava (aged 67, leading a wing at the latter). His extraordinary service in the Crimea earned him the commendation of Parliament, promotion to full General and the Grand Crosses of the Bath and Legion of Honor. He finally retired from politics and the military, in 1865, at the age of seventy-eight. He died five years later, aged eighty-three.
The years of the South American campaign, however, are a blank period in Evans’s life. In his book on Russia he says nothing of this time, and neither did he make mention later of having been in South America. Neither of his biographers have been able to find any record of where he was between 1818 and 1826 (when he went to Russia). However, the complete rolls of membership of the Spanish Orders of Charles III and St Ferdinand, leave no other candidate. Ströhling was working in London, and as Evans certainly knew Admiral Lord Cochrane, the valiant naval commander who played such a major role in the wars for South American independence, he might well have been recommended to this artist, who had painted the younger Cochrane two decades earlier. Evans later succeeded Cochrane as MP for Westminster, both of them being radicals, when the latter inherited his father’s Earldom of Dundonald. Furthermore, the genealogical tree Evans is holding was clearly included at the behest of the sitter and the de Lacy’s claim to Carolingian descent was well-documented. On minute examination of the painting, it appears likely that the decorations were added later, probably after Evans returned from Spain, covered in glory in 1837-38. Evans was a liberal by inclination, certainly sympathetic to the South American cause, and as an unemployed military officer with little private income aside from his modest pension, this war would have been a major attraction for him. Was he on a secret mission from the Crown, or government, as the portfolio with the royal monogram might suggest? It is clear that more research into this period needs to be done.