Colonel Tarleton

The sitter, Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1754 - 1833) distinguished himself in the American War of Independence, and returned to England as a lieutenant-colonel about the beginning of 1782. Later he was Member of Parliament for Liverpool, a general and a baronet.

This work was painted in 1782. Tarleton is in the uniform of a troop, raised during the American campaign, known as the British Legion or (for the cavalry part) Tarleton's Green Horse, of which he was commandant.

It is assumed that the flag above him is of the British Legion. In 1781 Tarleton lost two fingers of his right hand, as Reynolds discreetly shows.

Personal response: Jon Snow
Broadcaster Jon Snow discusses the representation of war in 'Colonel Tarleton' - 5 mins 5 secs

Miranda Hinkley: So here we are in front of Sir Joshua Reynolds painting of Colonel Tarleton from 1782 and it’s a kind of fantastic, glorifying portrait of a dashing young man, taking a moment, pausing, from the battle, with the kind of horses rearing up behind him and the canon thundering in the background and here he is, kind of, serenely looking dashing in front of the artist.

Jon Snow: Well, this is precisely the kind of image of war which I think really dominated British painting right up to the turn of the 20th century. Joshua Reynolds is really just celebrating I think the heroism of war and this is precisely what changed, I think, when artists began to tackle war in the 20th century.

And, of course, the thing about artists in the 20th century, particularly the war artists who were commissioned actually to record what was going on was that they got caught up in the heat of battle – they were commissioned, they were actually in uniform and several of them had the most appalling nervous breakdowns. I mean two key figures that I look at are Nash and Nevinson. Nevinson was a futurist who really believed that the first world war was the dawning of the great moment when futurists would have their day, that this would be the ultimate medium in which they could really throw their art out into the four corners of the world. And it was only really when he got into the heat of battle that he realised how absolutely hellish the whole thing was. He has a wonderful painting which depicts French soldiers marching along the side of the road and all the individuals have been fused into a kind of war machine, with spikes of the sabres at the end of the rifle, and poor man, he actually did have a nervous breakdown as a result of the pressures of being in the war. Nash, who painted these devastated landscapes, had the good fortune to trip into a trench and damaged his ankle and had to be invalided out, but not before he had witnessed what is the hell of war. It’s interesting actually because I think the first world war was so raw and so awful that the people who commissioned the art actually censored some of it when it came back.

Nevinson has a wonderful picture of two dead tommies lying on the effluent from the trenches and the depicting of dead Brits was too much for the people who commissioned the art and Nevinson took the picture back after he was told it couldn’t be displayed and displayed it himself with brown paper stuck over the dead tommies with the word ‘censored’ on it, so it was a real struggle for these artists to do what they had been sent to do.

Miranda Hinkley: Perhaps our representations of war have become more moralising in a way?

Jon Snow: I think that’s true. And when you get into the Iraq war and John Keen who was the war artist sent by the British government for that war. He depicts, particularly American soldiers, with the strange paraphernalia they took which includes Mickey Mouse. There’s actually a little teddy of Mickey Mouse standing in one of his rather horrific shots of devastation. And then we move right up onto the present day and deal for example with Steve McQueen who has a wonderful piece called Queen and Country which is three dimensional and which immortalises each of those people, those British soldiers, who died in the Iraq war in postage stamps. And his idea was that these men’s faces should appear on the breakfast table. The post office didn’t play ball but the artefact which is a large cabinet in which each of these sheets of paper with these stamps on are kept is a thing of beauty even of itself.

And then there’s Jeremy Deller, who went to Baghdad, got an old bombed out taxi, and towed it round America, and it provided a fantastic spark for discussion between an Iraqi, who he’d take with him, and a GI, who’d come back, and it would stir people to discuss the Iraq war in terms they’d never explored before so there’s art operating in a completely different way. I don’t know what Joshua Reynolds managed to stir in terms of conversation when people first saw this piece in 1782 but I’m sure there will have been a conversation. Mainly about what a good-looking man he was. But what I really want to leave the viewer with is a sense of the artist delivering a holistic account of war. Not necessarily all blood and guts. That there is camaraderie, and there is... there’s something that makes war wage-able and that I think is the life of the brotherhood, sisterhood together in war,and I think that comes across in some of the most recent painters and I have a feeling that’s actually also what Joshua Reynolds is trying to do, that in the midst of the heat of war, there is a human spirit. I think his human spirit is a very heroic one. Mine is more collegiate.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Nine, November 2010

Key facts

Artist dates
1723 - 1792
Full title
Colonel Tarleton
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
236 x 145.5 cm
Acquisition credit
Bequeathed by Mrs Henrietta Charlotte Tarleton, 1951
Inventory number
Location in Gallery