David Starkey shares his favourite painting with Country Life

Lord Ribblesdale, 1902, by John Singer Sargent RA (1856–1925), 101¾in by 56½in, The National Gallery

David Starkey says: If I could own one great painting, this would be it. I am fortunate enough to have a fine contemporary copy of Sargent’s portrait of the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore Cooper, which was painted at about the same time and shares the same angular, elongated format and black-and-white palette, like a super-size Japanese print.

But Lord Ribblesdale is of a different order. Capturing the quintessence of understated aristocratic style, it’s the portrait of an age as well as the man. It’s a historian’s dream. Thank heavens it’s an impossible one as I would also need a house with 20ft-high ceilings to accommodate it comfortably!

David Starkey is a historian and broadcaster. His latest book, Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter, was published in April

John McEwen comments:

Richard Ormond’s three volumes devoted to the 700 portraits by his great-uncle show what an avalanche of commissions Sargent had to contend with as the most fashionable portraitist of his time. In 1902, Rodin voiced the general opinion that he was ‘le Van Dyck de l’epoque’.

It was a reputation the artist found increasingly irksome. That same year, he told a friend: ‘It will be great fun to do some nudes instead of frock-coated bank presidents.’ And soon, he relinquished portraiture for more imaginative work. Lord Ribblesdale was the reverse of the norm. Sargent proposed the portrait. Thomas Lister, 4th Baron Ribblesdale (1854–1925), was, among other things, Liberal whip in the House of Lords, lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria and, for many years, Master of the Queen’s Buckhounds, but, above all, he was renowned for his style, charm and good looks.

He preferred to ‘wear mufti [‘ratcatcher’] when hunting’, as here, and was famed for his foppish black ‘butterfly’ muffler, worn to one side, and was ‘a stickler for the tall hat’, which he considered ‘best for riding of all kinds, which includes falling off’. The portrait was first exhibited at the Paris Salon, its subject hailed as the embodiment of patrician manners and style. When Ribblesdale visited, he was immediately recognised and ‘followed by an embarrassingly large crowd’.

He was a trustee of the National Gallery, so it is appropriate that his portrait once hung in its central hall before being moved to the Barry Rooms. It is now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of the ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ exhibition, with which it will return to the National Gallery in February 2016. His style, charm and good looks found glorious fruition when his similarly blessed grandson, Brig Lord Lovat, led 1st Commando Brigade with legendary panache on D-Day.

** Read all the other Favourite Paintings in our series