This portrait shows the flamboyant and controversial figure Sir Banestre Tarleton, a cavalry officer best known as commander of the ‘Tarleton Raiders’ during the American war of independence. It was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading British portrait painter of the 18th century. Reynolds was a founding member of the Royal Academy and its first President, and was knighted by King George III.
Banestre Tarleton (1754 – 1833) was born to a wealthy family in Liverpool. Aged nineteen, he inherited £5,000 pounds from his father and gambled it away in a year. His mother then bought him an officer’s position in the army. In 1778, now a lieutenant colonel, he took command of the newly established British Legion that was comprised of American cavalry and light infantry who were loyal to the King. They soon became known as Tarleton’s Legion, or Tarleton’s Raiders.
The most controversial of their activities was the Battle of Waxhaws Creek in 1780, when Tarleton’s troops forced Colonel Buford’s Continentals (rebel Americans) to surrender. The ferocious nature of attack earned him a series of unflattering nicknames: Bloody Ban, Butcher and The Green Dragon. The term, ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ was also used to indicate excessively heavy casualties. The battle became known as the Waxhaws massacre or Buford’s massacre. It pointed to the difficulty for the British Army of trying to win hearts and minds while making progress on the battlefield in what was often a civil war.
This portrait shows Banestre Tarleton wearing the Lieutenant Colonel’s uniform of the British Legion, including what became known as the Tarleton helmet. Tarleton is shown surrounded by imagery of war – fire and billowing smoke, panicked horses and cannons draped in captured flags. But Tarleton himself appears serene, almost detached, with his foot casually placed on a fallen cannon. The right hand on his knee shows he had lost two fingers (in the Battle of Guildford Courthouse in 1781 – the year the American war was lost at Yorktown).
The artist Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792) was born in Devon. After an apprenticeship with the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson and time spent living mainly in Italy, he settled in London. Here he established himself as a portrait painter and key intellectual and social figure. In 1768, he was invited to become president of the new Royal Academy of Arts. This was a hugely influential position and his annual lectures had a lasting impact on British art theory and practice.
Did you know..?
The 2000 film starring Mel Gibson, The Patriot, courted controversy with its excessive portrayal of Tarleton’s notoriety, through the character thinly renamed as ‘Tavington’ who burns women and children alive in a church.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.