Admiral Sir John Balchen, 1670-1744

A three-quarter-length portrait showing Balchen to the left in a blue coat, with gold clasps and a heavy gold embroidered sash. He wears a sword belt around his waist and a brown full-bottomed wig. He gestures with his right hand towards a ship in the left background, half out of the picture and flying the red ensign.
The identification of the sitter as Balchen is based on a lengthy inscription added to the portrait later than its date of production, and since removed. It is now known only from photographs, but read 'Vice Admiral John Balchin, was born of very obscure Parentage February 4th 1669 at Godalming in Surrey, and rose to the Eminence noticed above solely by his own Exertions and Services, for which he was rewarded by his Sovereign with the Governorship of Greenwich Hospital. This distinguished Officer was unhappily lost in October 1744, off Alderney with the whole of the Crew 1200 in Number having his Flag then on board the Victory of 110 Guns. A Monument still exists in Westminster Abbey to his Memory.'
The painting came to the Museum as part of the Greenwich Hospital Collection. Sir Henry Austen gave the portrait to the Naval Gallery there in 1852 and at this time it appears to have been attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller. The painting was later reattributed to Jonathan Richardson, who was the principal portraitist of the period between Kneller and Hudson. He founded the St Martin's Lane Academy with Kneller in 1711 and was influential through his books on the theories of painting. The details surrounding the reattribution of this painting to Richardson remain unclear. Furthermore, Miles Barton has recently (January 2016) suggested Sir John de Medina as a much more likely artist.
In February 1703 Balchen was appointed to the 36-gun ship ‘Adventure’, which was launched in 1646 and, after rebuilding at 44 guns in 1691, was in use until 1709. Balchen served on the 'Adventure' in the North Sea and channel until 1705. This would have provided opportunity for the ship to have anchored off Edinburgh and for an encounter between Medina and Balchen. While this idea remains speculative, it is notable that Medina was then a highly popular artist in Edinburgh who offered competitive prices in comparison to contemporaries such as Kneller. Given this potential context, the ship in the background is perhaps meant to represent the ‘Adventure’ and Balchen's age is not inconsistent: he was 35 when he relinquished its command in 1705.
When commanding the 'Chester', 50 guns, in 1707, Balchen was captured by the French commander Forbin. He became Governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1743 and in 1744 was recalled to sea to command a squadron to relieve Charles Hardy, who was blockaded in the Tagus. During the voyage home his fleet was scattered by a storm in the Channel and he went down with his flagship the 'Victory', 100 guns, which was lost with all hands: Monamy's painting of the loss is BHC0361. It was thought to have been wrecked upon the Caskets, off Guernsey, but that has now been questioned since, in 2009, its remains were found in 75 metres of water 62 miles south-east of Plymouth. It may just have foundered in bad weather. (Updated, January 2016 and August 2021).

Object Details

ID: BHC2525
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Richardson, Jonathan; Kneller, Godfrey de Medina, John Baptiste
Date made: circa 1705
People: Balchen, John; Austen, Henry
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 1435 x 1200 mm; Frame: 1430 x 1190 x 92mm

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