I was thinking about Jeffrey Amherst yesterday. Or rather, Amherst was thrust upon me as I walked through the National Portrait Gallery in London and his face jumped out at me in three paintings. Two were “face in the crowd” works that ensured you knew that yes, HE was there, so was that other HE… and so on. It’s like a snapshot taken at an event, painted over a long period of time. Ego strokes and, to me, tedious. But portraits offer something different, a glimpse into the person. And few people got your attention during the French and Indian War like Jeffrey Amherst.
No matter what you think of Amherst, and there’s plenty of reason to question his tactics, he helped shift momentum of the war with decisive, ruthless action (giving smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans is certainly ruthless and ethically highly questionable). That victorious campaign positioned him for accolades at home, place names in the New World, and one elite liberal arts college bearing his name. And a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. I don’t celebrate the life of Amherst, but I acknowledge that he got the job done when the English needed someone to step up.