Although he was not a very popular figure and was generally dealt with harshly by historians, Martin Howard, a passionate lawyer, played an important role both in North Carolina and in Rhode Island. An Act for which he was agent, enacted in Rhode Island in 1765, triggered a genuine revolt, during which an irate crow assaulted and sacked his house, forcing him to take refuge on a British ship and go back to England. Howard returned to America two years later, in 1767, and following his arrival, on 26 August, married Abigail Greenleaf, the daughter of the Sheriff of Suffolk Stephen Greenleaf, in Boston. Years later he sailed back to England with his family and died there in 1782.
Executed during the artist’s American period, the portrait in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, signed and dated in 1767, was probably painted to mark the judge’s marriage. It is consonant with the prevailing taste for official portraits in eighteenth-century England. Howard’s pose and clothing — the robes of chief justice of North Carolina, the office to which he was appointed in 1767— significantly enhance the figure of this British civil servant in America. Both the use of the exuberant red and the sweeping folds of his judge’s attire, which are offset by the bluish velvet of the chair on which he poses, set the work apart from the artist’s earlier portraits.