Sir Samuel Bentham (1757-1831)

A half-length portrait to the left showing Bentham in a Russian lieutenant-colonel’s uniform, consisting of a green coat with red lapels and gold buttons and epaulettes. He also wears a gold laced waistcoat and a grey tie wig.
Samuel Bentham, the younger brother of the noted philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was a naval architect and inventor. He was sent to Westminster School in 1763, but showed a distinctly practical intelligence and did not follow his brother to Oxford. Instead, in 1771 he was apprenticed to William Gray, a master shipwright at Woolwich and later at Chatham. Bentham showed talent and range in the application of his studies and position, impressing the commissioners of the Navy with a model of his own design for a ship’s pump, which he produced aged 16. Upon completing the apprenticeship in 1777, he wished for more than the place of an ordinary shipwright and spent time at the Royal Navy Academy in Portsmouth gaining knowledge of mathematics and the operation of the dockyard. He went to sea as a volunteer with Lord Keppel’s fleet in 1778 before deciding to seek a position in Russia.
Setting out in August 1779, he arrived in Russia the following February. Turning down a post surveyor-general of shipbuilding that spring because the salary was too low, he spent much of 1780 observing Russian shipyards and developing his circle of friends and contacts, especially Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potyomkin, the favourite of Catherine the Great. He was given freedom to travel and embarked on a wide-ranging tour in 1781–82, reaching the Far East, where he observed the fur trade with Alaska. He was eventually taken into Russian service, initially in the department of hydraulic works and then, in December 1783 and under Potyomkin’s patronage, in the naval base at Kherson on the Black Sea. He was given the rank of a lieutenant-colonel; this portrait being commissioned shortly thereafter. At Kherson, he was commissioned to build river transports but was given leeway to experiment with other designs. Later, in the cavalry and having attained the rank of brigadier-general, his army duties took him to Siberia in February 1789; he established a regimental school near the Chinese border and hoped to engage in some profitable trade. He returned to Moscow the following June and left Russia for Britain in January 1791, where he worked with his brother, developing the plans for a panopticon prison.
Bentham was made inspector-general of naval works in March 1796; he was responsible for a considerable improvement of the dockyards, extending basins, championing mass production and experimenting with ship design. His pursuit of efficiency and economy was not always popular with the dockyard workers or the Navy Board. He was sent back to Russia in 1805, under the misapprehension that the Tsar was to allow British warships to be built at Archangel. He returned in 1807 and, following continued disputes, was dismissed from naval service with a generous pension of £1000 per annum (plus £500 expenses) in 1812. He moved to France in 1814, making improvements to his estate near Montpellier between 1820 and 1826, when he returned to Britain. His last years were spent writing about naval affairs and engineering.

Object Details

ID: BHC2549
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: British School, 18th century; Russian School, 18th century
Date made: 18th century; 1784?
People: Bentham, Brigadier-General Samuel; Hooker, Joseph Dalton
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 795 mm x 698 mm x 78 mm;Painting: 609 mm x 508 mm

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