Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald (1748-1831), served in the Army and afterwards in the Navy, later relinquishing both services for scientific research. He is known as the ‘father of the British tar industry’.
Despite his noble birth, the family estates were extremely impoverished, and money was borrowed to enter Archibald, at the age of fourteen, as a midshipman in the navy. Here he was able, at first hand, to observe how ships rotted in seawater and how tar could protect the wood. In 1764, he entered the army, joining the third Kings Own Regiment of Dragoons as cornet. He came from a family rich in military and naval glory – his younger brothers had notable careers. Charles Cochrane (1749-1781) served as a major in the notorious British Legion during the American Revolution; John (1750-1801) and Basil (1753-1826) were supply contractors for the British army and navy; Basil in particular made a fortune providing supplies to the navy in India. Alexander (1758-1832) became an admiral. George (b. 1762) served in the army and in Parliament. Only Andrew (1767-1833) sullied the family name with his fraudulent activities, but also served as an army officer, colonial governor, and member of Parliament. As brothers, their reputation was noted by none other than Admiral of the Fleet, the Earl of St Vincent who in 1806 declared; “The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family.”
In 1778, Archibald succeeded to the title of earl of Dundonald on the death of his father. He married first Anne, daughter of Captain James Gilchrist, secondly (and around the date of this miniature) to Isabella, widow of John Mayne and finally in 1819 to Anna Maria, daughter of the writer Francis Peter Plowden. The eldest son of his first marriage was Admiral Thomas Cochrane, who succeeded his father as 10th Earl.
Dundonald’s scientific pursuits began with experiments in the production of synthetic soda, which was required to make up a shortfall of natural soda. His initial role in this process was minimised by his first partners in the business who developed it into a profitable business in which Dundonald had no part.
His next venture was in coal-tar technology. This extended to a process which included a complete industrial package – with every element of the process used to enable other industries, such as calico printing and metal finishing (detailed in his book, The Quality and Uses of Coal Tar and Coal Varnish, 1784). His intention was to persuade the Admiralty to use his treatment, but they deferred and used the previous copper sheafing to protect the bottom of the ships. He was ahead of his time and did not see the development and use of coal tar during his lifetime. He was also involved in the practical uses of other chemical reactions in the production of fabric, white lead and the purification of rock salt. Far from his nickname of ‘daft Dundonald’ he was actually correct in much of his research, publishing a Treatise Showing the Intimate Connection between Agriculture and Chemistry(1795), eighteen years before Sir Humphry Davy’s famous work on that topic. His work never, however, translated into his fortune and after his death (poverty-stricken in Paris in 1831) his son Thomas wrote despairingly; ‘his discoveries, now of national utility, ruined him, and deprived his posterity of their remaining paternal inheritance’.
The artist Samuel Shelley, who painted the present portrait, was born in London and lived for the duration of his working life in the capital, following a relatively conventional route into his chosen profession. After winning the much-coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, he entered into the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. He exhibited at the RA between 1774 and 1804 and was greatly influenced by the work of Joshua Reynolds, president of the academy from 1768 until 1792.