John Thomas Seton, The Honorable Sir Archibald Seton, 13th Baron Touch and Tullibody (1758–1818)

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All Rights Reserved)


Country House
Mells Manor
The Honorable Sir Archibald Seton, 13th Baron Touch and Tullibody (1758–1818)
? early 1780s
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Overall height: 64 cm, Overall width: 74 cm
John Thomas Seton (c.1735-1806)
Catalogue Number


Archibald Seton was the eldest son of Elizabeth Seton and Hugh Smith (1722–1795), who assumed his wife’s surname on their marriage in 1744 and the baronetcy of Touch and Tullibody, Stirlingshire. The family were staunch Jacobites, Hugh Seton having given hospitality to Charles Edward Stuart on his arrival in Scotland at the start of the 1745 Jacobite rising. Seton, who was something of a character, was also a dedicated agricultural reformer and spent considerable sums improving his estate and the house at Touch, to which he added a grand south front in the 1750s and lavish interiors. One of the unfortunate repercussions was crippling debt and imprisonment, causing him to flee to the Middle East and India, where he assumed native dress and sported a long beard.1 His son, Archibald, who had been sent to Hamburg in 1775 ‘for a commercial education’ and had also spent time in Paris, returned home, being named his mother’s heir in April 1780. At the time he was apparently unaware of his father’s debts, appointing him as factor of his inherited estates, just before his departure for India to seek employment and emolument through the East India Company.2 Beginning as a ‘writer’ in the Revenue Department of Bengal, Seton rose swiftly through the ranks, establishing a career in the judiciary and eventually holding the position of Resident of Delhi and member of the Supreme Council. Archibald Seton died in 1818, unmarried, on his way back from India, having – despite the depredations of his father on his income – secured his family fortune and estate.3

The present portrait evidently found its way to Mells through family intermarriage, since Margaret Stuart, the first wife of Sir John Coxe Hippisley, was the daughter of Margaret Smith (wife of Sir John Stuart, 3rd Baronet of Allanbank), who was in turn the sister of Hugh Smith Seton of Touch and Archibald Seton’s aunt. The painting may have passed at some point following the death of Archibald Seton to Coxe Hippisley, unless it was acquired at an earlier date by Seton’s cousin, Margaret Stuart. Sir John Coxe Hippisley’s paintings and related collection came to Mells via his son, John Stuart Hippisley, who died unmarried at Mells in 1867.

It has been suggested previously that the artist responsible for the portrait was Tilly Kettle (1735–1806), who spent time in India but who had in fact returned in 1776, three years before Archibald Seton arrived (assuming that the portrait was made in India).4 More recently, it has been attributed to John Thomas Seton.5 The attribution to Seton can be accepted with absolute confidence on stylistic and circumstantial grounds. John Thomas Seton, who was not related to the sitter, was the son of a London-based gem engraver. He grew up in London, where he trained under Francis Hayman and at the St Martin’s Lane Academy, before travelling to Italy in 1758, where he spent about two years. Subsequently, he based his practice in Edinburgh, before travelling to India in 1776. There, his portraits included prestigious commissions from Sir Eyre Coote and the Governor General Warren Hastings. Seton returned to England in 1785, ‘after an easy time in Bengal, and with twelve thousand pounds in his pocket’.6

The present portrait can be compared on stylistic grounds to Seton’s self-portrait of around 1775 (private collection), where he is depicted in Vandyke dress, holding a porte-crayon, his hand resting on his chin in a similar manner to the portrait of Archibald Seton.7 The portraits share a pale tonality, with the lips highlighted in red in a similar manner. In the 1770s Seton painted the portraits of a number of other Scottish aristocrats with Jacobite sympathies, notably Archibald’s great-uncle, Sir Hugh Paterson (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, PG 634).

Based on the sitter’s presumed age at the time the portrait was made, somewhere in his early to mid-twenties, it can be dated to the early 1780s, by which time both Archibald Seton and John Thomas Seton were located in Calcutta. Seton is seated pensively, perhaps with a slightly wistful air, against a backdrop which clearly represents his Scottish home of Touch. Indeed, Touch House is shown in the distance among trees, situated at the foot of the Touch Hills, Stirling. In terms of likeness, the present portrait can be compared with another representation of Seton as a young man by the Scottish artist David Martin (1737–1797), there depicted in a red coat holding a book.8

An interesting footnote, with regard to Archibald Seton’s earlier years, is Johan Zoffany’s full-length portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, which was dispatched, according to a family anecdote, by her to Seton, as a former suitor, when she opted instead to take on the Earl of Derby as her lover. The portrait, now in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, was formerly at Touch House.9

by Martin Postle


  1. See Seton’s portrait by James Wales, British Library, London, F637: (accessed 23 March 2020).

  2. See Sir Bruce Gordon Seton, The House of Seton: A Study of Lost Causes, 2 vols, Edinburgh: Lindsay and Macleod, 1939–41, vol. 2, p. 483.

  3. For a detailed account of Hugh and Archibald Seton in the context of the family’s debt and sojourn in India see Margot Finn and Kate Smith, eds, The East India Company at Home, 1757–1857, London: UCL Press, 2018, pp. 155–63.

  4. Clare Wilkins to the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, 3 October 1989, Mells Manor Archive, picture file.

  5. James Miller, Sotheby’s, to the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, 6 March 2003, ibid. On Miller’s suggestion the portrait was cleaned and relined.

  6. George Charles Williamson, The Life and Works of Ozias Humphry, R.A., London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1918, p. 142.

  7. The Seton self-portrait was with Baraset House Fine Art Gallery, Toronto, in March 2020. For an image of the portrait see (accessed 23 March 2020).

  8. For an image of the David Martin portrait see (accessed 23 March 2020). The portrait is apparently signed ‘Martin pinxit 1780’, in which case it must have been completed just before Seton’s departure for India.

  9. Lady Victoria Manners and Dr G. C. Williamson, John Zoffany, R.A. His Life and Works. 1735–1810, London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1920, p. 150, illus. p. 151. It is unknown whether Miss Farren’s reported choice of Lord Derby over Seton may have prompted his immediate departure for India. It is also possible that the Seton in question was not Archibald but his father Hugh who was vying with Lord Derby, since he was the ‘old fright’ living in Leicester Square mentioned by Mrs Siddons as having pursued her and her sister, Fanny Kemble: see Nina A. Kennard, Mrs Siddons, London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1887, p. 140.


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