2649 NEDI Gorringes Robert Emmet 1

Robert Emmet (1778-1803) was an Irish Republican and patriot, orator and rebel leader executed for high treason in 1803. This ivory portrait miniature by an unknown artist was estimated £300-500 at Gorringe’s but made a final hammer £3600.

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Given the scarcity of contemporaneous portraiture featuring the legendary Irish Republican and patriot, orator and rebel leader, the portrait understandably caused quite a stir when it appeared in Gorringe’s Miniatures and Silhouettes online sale (which ended June 16). Consigned by a local vendor in Sussex, it had been in the family for some time, but unfortunately no further provenance was known.

Robert Emmet (1778-1803) was a young Irish revolutionary who achieved legendary status. He was born in Dublin to a professional Protestant family, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. With high ideals of fraternity and equality, Robert, like his elder brother Thomas, became involved with the United Irishmen - an organisation formed in 1791 to achieve Roman Catholic emancipation and (with Protestant cooperation) parliamentary reform. The British tried to suppress the society and consequently, in 1803, Emmet led an abortive rebellion in Dublin against the British. He was captured, tried and executed for high treason against the British king George III.  

Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend

According to Professor Marianne Elliott in ‘Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend’, Emmet’s trial on 19 September 1803 attracted huge interest. It seemed to symbolise a confrontation between establishment corruption and youthful idealism. Presiding was Judge Norbury, the eccentric so-called ‘hanging-judge’, said to have taken almost voyeuristic pleasure in the death sentences passed down by him.

At the end of a ten-hour trial, Emmet delivered his famous speech, unquestionably the most famous of the many ‘speeches from the dock’ which became the standard repertoire of Irish nationalist rhetoric, republican and constitutional alike.

When asked if he had anything to say in response to this sentence, Emmet gave what is considered to be one of the most famous speeches of the period:

‘I am going to my cold and silent grave ... I have but one request to make at my departure from the world – It is the charity of its silence – Let no man write my epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them; let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and then only, may my epitaph be written: – I am done.’

Although he held out hope for a rescue, on September 20, 1803, he was hanged and beheaded at a makeshift gallows in front of St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street. Out of deference to his aristocratic background, he was not subsequently disembowelled – which was normally par for the course. What happened to his body and head thereafter is a mystery, the absence of a grave adding an edge to his final request ‘let no man write my epitaph’.

A violent, ignominious death, heroically confronted and a common criminal’s burial, placed Emmet to the fore of developing Irish nationalism. However, very little is known about Robert Emmet the man - he left no political writings, died at the tender age of 25, and virtually no contemporary portraits of him exist. To date, the one known depiction of Emmet is a watercolour portrait miniature on ivory, painted by John Comerford from life during Emmet’s trial, which is believed to be the finest likeness of him made. It was transferred to the National Gallery of Ireland by a descendant of Emmet in 1970.

The oval portrait offered was contained in a  gold locket, engraved recto to the upper rim: 'Robert Emmet Born 21st May 1782', to the lower: 'Executed 20th September 1803', and verso 'Thomas Addis Emmit’, with what appears to be a later, handwritten label with the wording, ‘Gold – Robert Emmett, Irish Patriot, Executed 1803, Aged only 25!’. The portrait itself was sensitively painted, a serious young man in thoughtful pose, dark hair with a blunt fringe, large blue eyes and a distinguished nose, finely attired in Regency dress.

2649 NEDI Gorringes Robert Emmet 2

Robert Emmet (1778-1803), detail of the label on the back of an ivory portrait miniature sold at Gorringe’s for £3600.

Thomas Addis Emmet (1764 -1827) appears to have commissioned the portrait of his brother posthumously. He served as an Irish and American lawyer, and latterly a politician who was exiled to America in 1804. He took up legal practice in New York and earned a reputation as a staunch abolitionist, serving as the state's Attorney General in 1812-13.

From the onset, online bidders showed strong interest in the portrait of Emmet, with some speculation given the dates on the frame did not exactly align with those recorded for Emmet, but overall the consensus was it certainly seemed ‘right’ in terms of period and likeness. Estimated at just £300-500, it was priced at a level that saw strong bidding from Ireland, the UK and beyond.  The online battle saw it realise £3600 (plus 25% buyer’s premium) and was won by a local private buyer based in Lewes. Its strong price reflected the portrait’s rarity in terms of subject matter and historic appeal.

The first 200 lots of the sale came from a private collection in East Sussex, formed over the past few years by an enthusiast. As Clifford Lansbury from Gorringe’s told ATG, ‘I was pleasantly surprised by the response to the sale as I had concerns that ivory issues and a general malaise around miniatures might affect prices. As it was I think the broad spread of work on offer, the stand-alone sale and sensible estimates seemed to appeal to the bidders and buyers.’