Captain William Parker, 1781-1866

A half-length portrait to the right showing Parker seated in 1795-1812 undress captain’s uniform (under three years seniority), holding a sword horizontally by the scabbard in his right hand.

William Parker was an officer of ‘spirit and resolution’, who joined the Navy aged 12 in early 1793 and rose rapidly thanks to both his ability and his connections. He came from a notable Staffordshire Whig family: his uncle was John Jervis, later Earl of St Vincent, and his grandfather Sir Thomas Parker, chief baron of the Exchequer. This portrait marks his promotion to post captain on 9 October 1801, aged only 19. (He was 20 on 1 December that year: Nelson by comparison, another early promotee, made captain in 1779 at 20 and 8 months.) Parker was a midshipman in the 'Orion' at the Battle of the Glorious 1st of June 1794. He was made acting lieutenant in 1796 but only confirmed in the rank on 5 September 1799, five weeks before being advanced to commander on 10 October. From 1802 to 1812 he commanded the frigate 'Amazon', including in Nelson's pre-Trafalgar chase across the Atlantic but then missed the battle by being sent on detached patrol. From 1812, when ‘Amazon’ paid off, he spent 15 years living as a country gentlemen at Shenstone Lodge near Lichfield, which he purchased from his prize money, and lost the sight of an eye during this time owing to a hunting accident.

Further service followed in the late 1820s and 1830s, at sea and ashore, including on the Admiralty board. In 1841, as a vice-admiral during the First Anglo-Chinese War (1839–42), he became naval commander-in-chief in China with his flag in HMS 'Cornwallis', on which the Treaty of Nanking was concluded and signed in 1842. The treaty granted Hong Kong island to Britain, on which Mount Parker was named after him. Other rewards followed for Parker, including a baronetcy and a pension. He was subsequently commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet in the 1840s, reached full admiral in 1851 and retired after being C-in-C at Plymouth, 1854-57. He rose to Admiral of the Fleet by seniority in 1863 and died of bronchitis on 13 November 1866, aged 84. His grave is at St John's, Shenstone, in the south-east angle of the church with those of his wife Frances (nee Biddulph, 1791-1871), his eldest son William Biddulph Parker (2nd bt., 1824-1902) and the latter's wife Jane (nee Donstande). The church holds three stained-glass windows commemorating him and there is also a formal monument in Lichfield Cathedral.

ODNB states that ‘no officer of Parker’s day made so deep an impression on the navy’, and Nelson and St Vincent considered him ‘a first-rate officer’. He had a reputation as a ‘strict, but not harsh’ disciplinarian of deep religious faith, and also refused to employ officers who smoked in his flagships. ‘More than any other officer of his generation, the calm, confident, and courteous Parker represented the navy at the mid-nineteenth century’ (ODNB). The Museum has long held his extensive archive of personal papers (PAR), which occupies nearly five linear metres of shelving. This early oil is one of only two known contemporary portraits of him; the other, in private hands (and with a copy in the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth), shows him as an admiral after his China service, though a thumbnail image also figures in John Platt's group print of 'The signing and the sealing of the Treaty of Nanking' (see PAH5081 for a coloured copy), where he is clearly recognisable.

This canvas is also, so far, the Museum’s only classic naval-officer portrait by Drummond, though it holds two others: BHC2792 is of William Rogers (and is the life study for BHC0579, of the 'Jeune Richard' action); BHC2800 is of Thomas James, the master of Woolwich Dockyard.

Object Details

ID: ZBA8785
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Drummond, Samuel
Date made: circa 1801
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Overall: 1102 mm x 974 mm x 130 mm; Frame: 1102 mm x 974 mm x 130 mm; Weight: 25.8 kg

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