The United Service

An interpretation of a meeting of army and navy veterans, the Chelsea Pensioners depicted dressed in scarlet coats and the pensioners of Greenwich Hospital in blue. They are portrayed during a viewing of the Naval Gallery paintings in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital, where the resident naval pensioners are entertaining the soldiers. (These paintings comprise much of the Greenwich Hospital Collection, largely held in the National Maritime Museum since 1936). Visible on the left is George Arnald's, 'The Destruction of the "L'Orient" at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798' (see BHC0509). The principal group of men in the foreground of Morton's painting consists of recognizable portraits, identifiable by an index on the frame. Nine of the Greenwich Pensioners had once served with Nelson.

On the far left, George Copestick, a soldier in the 2nd Life Guards, wears a red jacket and leans with his right hand on the brass rail. With his left hand cupped to his ear, he looks at Arnald's painting, his gesture implying that he is recalling the sensations of battle and attempting to hear the story being told behind him. Next to him is William Crook, Regulating Boatswain, who served in the 'Agamemnon', 64 guns, at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Wearing a blue jacket and breeches, he leans on a stick with both hands, and confronts the gaze of the viewer. Standing behind and to the right, and visible only by his head, is William Mathews, another Boatswain, who was at Tenerife with nelson in 1797, at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and in the 'Victory', 100 guns, at Trafalgar in 1805. Next to him is J. I. Shaw, Boatswain, who also served in the 'Agamemnon' at the Battles of Cape St Vincent, 1797, and at Trafalgar in 1805. He is talking to the group of figures immediately to the right and he gestures with his arms to indicate that he is engaged in a narrative of the battles depicted in the paintings. Immediately beside him can be seen the head of Edward Perry, who served in the 40th Regiment in Holland, Egypt and Malta. In front of Perry stands Henry Jacobs, the central figure of the group. He was a sergeant in the 52nd Regiment at Ferrol, Copenhagen, Walcheren, the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, and at Waterloo. He stands with his hands behind his back, looking directly at the painting, while a small girl holding a posy of flowers in her left hand touches his sleeve, directing her gaze beyond Arnald's picture to another one out of the viewer's sight. Jacobs, absorbed by both Shaw's narrative and preoccupied with his own personal reminiscences, seems unaware of the girl's presence. The next figure standing behind Jacobs and with his back to him is Peter Moser (alias Peter Reynolds), Boatswain, who served in the 'Victory' at Trafalgar. His naval war medal hangs on a ribbon round his neck and he leans on a stick. The head and shoulders of Daniel Ogilvie, who served at the Battle of Trafalgar, are visible behind and to the right. Next to him stands Thomas Holland, clasping his hands in front of him, wearing a two-clasp naval war medal. He served on the 'Lively' at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and on the 'Alexander' at the Battle of the Nile. To the right, John Lovell stands with his right hand tucked into his jacket. He served on the 'Agamemnon' with Nelson and at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, and was in the barge with him at Tenerife, where he tore strips from his own shirt to bind up Nelson's shattered arm. He was also at the Battle of the Nile. Next to him, and wearing a red hat, is the veteran black sailor John Deman (c.1774-1847), who served with Nelson in the West Indies. He is leaning on the chair of Joseph Burgin who is depicted seated in the foreground facing the paintings. He served on 'Vanguard' at the Battle of the Nile, and was the only Greenwich Hospital in-pensioner to lose a limb at Trafalgar. The rank of Boatswain was accorded to selected inmates or 'in-pensioners' out of the 2710 who lived at Greenwich Hospital by 1814, its highest number. Their enhanced status in helping maintain order and compliance with Hospital rules was marked by the broad gold lace on their coat sleeves and tricorn hats, as depicted in the painting.

Behind the group two portraits are visible. The top one is Shepperton's copy of Hoppner's full-length portrait of Nelson (BHC2898), implying Nelson's presence over the naval pensioners. The lower image is possibly one of Sir Peter Lely's 'Flagmen' portraits. There is a curious perspective to the painting since the walls lined with pictures (the two lower tiers tilted out from the wall) and the linear effect of the floor tiles serve to compress the central group of men. The columns of the Hall by the steps down to the Vestibule loom above the group. A painted cartouche (in reality, bearing the names of early benefactors of the Hospital) can be seen on the far eastern wall of the Hall on the right, with a group of other pensioners and visitors at the top of the steps down to the Vestible below it.

On the left, a group of three young women and a child sits on a bench. The woman on the far left has allowed her hat to fall and she wears a black stole to signify both the mourning of widows of battle, and of fatherless children. The presence of the women serves as a contrast to war, while the male baby, wearing blue ribbons, promises the future generation of fighters.

The artist has used the colours red and blue to unite the various elements in the painting, from Burgin's buttonhole and red handkerchief, to Deman's hat, the child's red flowers, the military jackets, the red and blue sashes and red dress. The unsettling perspective, the positioning of Joseph Burgin and the ambivalence of his gaze, invite further interpretations of the narrative, which on one level is concerned with the didactic function of art and the continuity of national legends of valour. The pensioners stand for witness and truth, and the young women and children for the transmitters and receivers of knowledge. A link is thus established between the realm of heroic masculine action and the feminine task of creating the next generation. Each depends on the other and they are mutually reinforcing: comfort, beauty and nurture depend on armed force, and vice versa. There is mutual dependence between home and battlefield.

The artist was a portrait painter and the son of a master mariner. He exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in 1845, the year he died. It was exhibited with the subtitle; 'The picture represents the visit of Chelsea Pensioners to their friends at Greenwich and contains the portraits of distinguished veterans well known in both the Royal Hospitals'. All are identified on an original tablet fixed to the lower frame. The painting is also significant in showing the original Naval Gallery hang in the Hall, between the side pilasters and over the infilled lower windows, from 1824 to 1846. To increase hanging space the lower pilasters were then panelled over to make a continuous and generally double- or triple-hung surface with a decorative moulded 'line' at the top and full-lengths of admirals hung above that between the upper part of the exposed pilasters.

Object Details

ID: BHC1159
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Morton, Andrew
Places: Greenwich
Vessels: Chelsea pensioners
Date made: 1845
People: Denman, John; Copestick, George William Crook Mathews, William Shaw, J. I. Perry, Edward Jacobs, Henry Moser, Peter Ogilvie, Daniel Holland, Thomas Lovell, John Burgen, Joseph
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 1168.4 x 1473.2 mm; Frame: 1468 mm x 1765 mm x 134 mm; Overall: 48 kg

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