Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Cornish, Captain Richard Kempenfelt and Thomas Parry

This portrait depicts Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Cornish (c.1715–1770), seated on the right, issuing orders to his flag captain Richard Kempenfelt (1718–1782), standing on the left. Cornish’s secretary, Thomas Parry (1732–1816), sits between the two officers, his quill poised over a stack of papers. The painting is the only known portrait of Admiral Cornish.

The setting is the admiral’s cabin in the 'Norfolk' – the ship in which the three men served in the East Indies in 1762. The painting commemorates their involvement in the capture of Manila, a significant Spanish trading base, in late September and early October that year, during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Although the Spanish government ultimately refused to pay the four-million-dollar ransom to which the city’s governor had originally agreed, the British forces nevertheless derived immense sums in prize money from the action, thanks in no small part to the capture of two Spanish treasure ships, the 'Santisima Trinidad' and the 'Filipina.

Although Cornish is the senior officer in the portrait, it is his secretary, Thomas Parry, who takes centre stage. Parry’s face is almost in the middle of the canvas, his light-coloured clothing standing out against the dark uniforms of his colleagues. His prominence is explained by his status as the work’s patron. Thomas Parry was a man of considerable ambition. The son of a peruke-maker, he was admitted to the Freedom of the City of London in February 1755 through the Girdlers’ Company, having completed a seven-year apprenticeship with a girdler, or belt-maker, called Thomas Hall. Three years later, he joined the Navy as a volunteer corporal (an assistant to the Master at Arms) and began steadily climbing the ranks. He advanced first to become a clerk, then obtained a warrant as a ship’s purser. As Cornish’s secretary, he was a key figure in the financial management of the Manila expedition, from which he derived a sizeable personal profit in prize money. With his new-found wealth, he was able to enter into a respectable marriage with Mary Oakes, the daughter of a senior naval official, and to purchase a newly built townhouse in Berners Street, off Oxford Street in London’s developing West End.

Around the same time, he commissioned the triple portrait. Paid for with his growing fortune and providing a grand adornment for the walls of the Berners Street house, the painting was an icon of his self-esteem and upwards social mobility.

Parry remained in the Navy until 1781 but never again voyaged away from England. He was assigned in turn to ships in reserve at the naval dockyards of Portsmouth, Woolwich, Deptford, and Plymouth. During this time, he combined his naval duties with business interests in London. After leaving the Navy, he became a Director of the East India Company, cementing his place in the merchant elite. In Parry’s confident gaze, the portrait allows us to come face-to-face with an individual whose desire for wealth and status helped to fuel British colonial expansion.

Parry also remained close with Cornish’s family, a relationship which culminated in the marriage of his son, Richard, to the admiral’s niece, Mary Gambier. The triple-portrait remained in the possession of the Gambier-Parry family for many generations, passing through the hands of several important descendants, including the art collector Thomas Gambier-Parry (1816–1888), whose collection of medieval and Renaissance fine and decorative art is now held at the Courtauld Gallery, London, and the composer Sir Charles Hubert Parry (1848–1918), who is best known for the choral song ‘Jerusalem’. The portrait is thus tied through its provenance to a significant legacy of cultural achievement – a legacy ultimately founded upon Thomas Parry’s lucrative career, the beginnings of which are commemorated in the painting.

Erroneously attributed to Johann Zoffany in 1920, the triple portrait is the work of the artist Tilly Kettle (1735–1786). It was exhibited twice at the Society of Artists in London, firstly in special exhibition hosted for the visiting King Christian VII of Denmark in September 1768 (No. 58, 'An admiral in his cabin, issuing his orders') and secondly in the Society’s annual public exhibition the following spring (No. 75, 'A conversation'). Although less well-known than his contemporaries Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, Kettle was nevertheless an important figure in the history of eighteenth-century British art, having been the first prominent British painter to have travelled to India, where he spent the years 1769–76. During this time, he made a small fortune painting British colonial rulers and Indian princes. His success inaugurated an artistic trend, inspiring several other British painters, including Zoffany, Ozias Humphrey, Thomas Hickey and Arthur William Devis, to undertake their own subcontinental sojourns.

Recognised by the art historian Ellis Waterhouse as the artist’s 'masterpiece, the triple portrait of Cornish, Kempenfelt and Parry marked an important turning point in Kettle’s career and laid the foundations for the Indian adventure that would come to define his legacy. Kettle began working as a professional portraitist in the 1750s. Over the next ten years, he travelled in the Midlands, practised successfully in Oxford and London, and submitted numerous works to the annual exhibitions of the Society of Artists. In 1768, the commission for the triple portrait provided the artist with a valuable opportunity to showcase his abilities. As a large-scale group portrait (something Kettle had never previously attempted), it was his most ambitious work to date. However, Kettle failed to secure significant patronage in London and was overlooked for membership of the newly founded Royal Academy, also in 1768.

These professional disappointments appear to have prompted his decision to seek his fortune overseas. Moreover, through his work on the triple portrait, he had gained a set of valuable naval connections, who helped to facilitate and may even have encouraged his voyage to the East Indies. A letter of recommendation from Admiral Cornish helped Kettle to secure passage on board an East India Company ship in December 1768. He perhaps also received support for his Indian travels from Parry. Kettle certainly stayed in contact with the admiral’s secretary, since the latter was listed as a trustee in the artist’s marriage agreement in 1777. Kempenfelt, too, supplied Kettle with further patronage, sitting to the artist in 1782 for a full-length portrait (BHC2818). This commission was a financial boon to the artist, who struggled to find clients in London after his return from India. Faced with mounting debts, Kettle set out to return to the East Indies in 1786 but died en route. Encompassing both success and failure, Kettle’s story demonstrates both the opportunities and the risks that British imperial expansion created for artists. His career exemplifies the interrelation of art, the Navy, migration and trade during a formative phase in Britain’s colonial history.

The triple portrait features bold contrasts of light and dark and its beautifully observed details. More importantly, the painting provides a rare depiction of the interior of an eighteenth-century British warship. Only a handful of cabin-based portraits are known from this period, including Bartolomeo Nazari’s 'Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne, and Friends in a Ship’s Cabin' (for a contemporary copy, see BHC2567) and Hogarth’s 'Lord George Graham in his Cabin' (BHC2720). Dating from the 1730s and 1740s respectively, these two pictures are examples of conversation-piece portraiture – a type of small-scale group portraiture popular in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Kettle’s triple portrait offers something different. As a large-scale cabin portrait, it anticipates Mason Chamberlin’s 'Captain John Bentinck and his son, William Bentinck, in a ship’s cabin' (BHC2550), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1775.

Naval portraits typically show their sitters on deck or in coastal settings, where cannons, anchors, jagged rocks, crashing waves, stormy skies and distant naval battles serve to associate naval service with violence, heroism, danger, and drama. Cabin portraits offer alternative perspectives on the sea officer’s career. Kettle’s triple portrait emphasises the professionalism of the modern navy. In particular, Parry’s central position in the composition stresses the importance of bureaucracy and administration within the sea service.

Object Details

ID: ZBA9432
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Kettle, Tilly
Date made: 1768
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Purchased with the support of the Art Fund, the Rought Fund and the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Collection Endowment Fund.
Measurements: Frame: 2032mm x 1720mm x 125mm; Weight (Overall): 82.0kg

Your Request

If an item is shown as “offsite”, please allow eight days for your order to be processed. For further information, please contact Archive staff:

Tel: (during Library opening hours)

Click “Continue” below to continue processing your order with the Library team.