Belfast Royal Academy - founded 1785


Our School – From the Archives…

A Portrait of Sir Henry Pottinger

Thanks to the support of former pupils, the school has acquired an impressive portrait of a distinguished former pupil.

The subject of this work is Sir Henry Pottinger, who was born on 25th December 1789 at Mount Pottinger, Co Down. He and his two brothers attended the Academy, but Henry left at the age of thirteen, when Lord Castlereagh  obtained for him a cadetship in the East India Company.

Pottinger quickly learned the main languages of East Asia and established a reputation as an exceptionally experienced soldier and traveller. In consequence, he was rapidly promoted, and in 1840, Lord Palmerston, then foreign secretary, had him appointed,  Envoy and Plenipotentiary to the Emperor of China. After the Chinese defeat by British forces in the first OpiumWar, Pottinger, in 1842, obliged the Emperor to sign the Treaty of Nanking, in which Hong Kong  was ceded to Britain. Pottinger became its first governor.

After serving in other colonial posts, Pottinger, his health failing, decided to return to the United Kingdom, but he died in Malta in 1856 and was buried in Valetta.

Despite his remarkable achievements, Pottinger was never really accepted by Britain’s ruling elite. Although knighted in 1839, his County Down accent was often mocked by some aristocratic English politicians, and such financial rewards as he received, were grudgingly conceded. It was for this reason, that after his death, his brother William had a plaque erected in St George’s Church, Belfast on which he bitterly lamented the ungracious treatment of Henry, which he attributed to, “Hostile Influence” in governing circles.


Pottinger’s real memorial however, is Hong Kong (the name translates as  Fragrant Harbour). With a skyline as recognizable as that of New York, the territory, handed back to China in 1997, is one of the most economically dynamic areas in Asia. Whether it would have reached such a position without Henry Pottinger’s action in 1842 is perhaps questionable.

Samuel Laurence 1812-1884, who painted the portrait now in the possession of the Academy, was a distinguished 19th century English artist. His work may be seen in the National Portrait Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Trinity College, Cambridge.

The accompanying  photographs show Laurence’s portrait; a view of Hong Kong as Pottinger would have known it; the famous skyline today; Pottinger Street in Hong Kong; and the plaque erected by William in St George’s Church Belfast.