The collection

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display

WEEK 19

Portrait of "Sturdy". Ranger's House, Blackheath

English Heritage has made a habit of collecting portraits for its historic houses, as a way of introducing visitors to past residents. This character is the future 5th Earl of Chesterfield (1755-1815) painted as a lad aged 14, by the artist John Russell.

Nicknamed "Sturdy" by his affectionate godfather and cousin, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, the fifth earl was the recipient of a correspondence course in the art of manners, etiquette and social advancement written by Chesterfield on an almost a daily basis from this villa at Blackheath, after he retired from a career as a diplomat.

In the 19th century the house became the official residence of the Greenwich Park rangers, a royal position that no longer carried responsibility for the deer. Ranger's House is now open to the public and is hung with magnificent Jacobean portraits.

Chesterfield commissioned this portrait, showing his heir as he imagined him, complete with learned books, Van Dyck costume and the word "ERIS" ("Thou Shalt Be") above his head. As he wrote to his godson: "My Dear Boy, I have bespoke of Mr Russell, a picture of you... with the attributes of a man of learning and taste; Anacreon, Horace, and Cicero lye upon your table, and you have Shakespear in your hand, to suit with your dress... The world has great expectations of you."

But the artist seems to have caught the mood of his sitter more accurately for, with heavy head, the lad looks as though he would rather be out playing some vigorous sport than reading his Horace.

Four years later, Sturdy inherited his godfather's villa. Although he had been an endearing child - he is recorded as learning Latin with his godfather and beating the valet at draughts - by the time Sturdy came into his inheritance, he was already heavily in debt. He became a drinking companion of the Prince of Wales, and a dinner with the Prince at Ranger's House ended in mayhem when the party let loose a guard dog for a jape. Towzer attacked the Prince, tore a footman's arm and, before being overcome, caused Sturdy to fall down the front steps, injuring his head.

Sturdy was not the only object of Chesterfield's ambitions. A set of letters to his natural son, who died the year before this portrait was painted, became an essential handbook for ambitious young men. Dr Johnson said the letters were to be avoided as they taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master". About eight years ago they were published, and appeared in an international best-seller list, doing particularly well in Japan.

Julius Bryant is director of museums and collections at English Heritage.

Ranger's House, Chesterfield Walk, Blackheath, London SE10 8QX. Open April 1 to September 30, daily 10am-6pm. Reduced opening times throughout the rest of the year

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