Captain George Duff (1764-1805)

A half-length portrait, slightly to the right, showing Duff in his captain's full dress uniform (over three years) of the 1795-1812 pattern.
The son of a solicitor, George Duff first went to sea as a stowaway on a merchant vessel. Aged 13, he joined his uncle, Captain Robert Duff, in the Mediterranean and, through his uncle’s interest, became a lieutenant at 16. He saw action in the ‘Montagu’, 74 guns, at the Battle of the Saints in 1782. He was promoted commander in 1790 and post captain in 1793. A series of commands followed, culminating in the ‘Mars’, 74 guns, which he took into action at Trafalgar as part of Collingwood's lee division.
Duff entrusted a final letter addressed to his wife, Sophia, to his son, Norwich, who was serving as a first-class volunteer in the ‘Mars’: ‘Dearest Sophia, I have just time to tell you we are going into Action with the Combined Fleet. I hope and trust in God that we shall all behave as becomes us, and that I may yet have the happiness of taking my beloved wife and children in my arms. Norwich is quite well and happy. I have, however, ordered him off the quarter-deck. Yours ever, and most truly, George.’
Despite the hopes of his letter, Duff’s battle was brutally short. As the ‘Mars’ engaged the ‘Fougueux’ and ‘Pluton’, a cannon ball from the former raked across the quarterdeck and struck Duff in the neck, severing his head completely. Midshipman James Robinson later told his father that, upon realizing the event, the crew ‘held his body up and gave three cheers to show they were not discouraged by it’. Duff’s headless body was covered in a Union flag and the crew returned to the guns. He was buried at sea after a service conducted in the pouring rain by Lieutenant William Hennah, attended by Norwich Duff, who had survived the battle, and the defeated French commander Pierre Villeneuve. Norwich continued in naval service, reaching the rank of vice-admiral in 1857. His own letter to his widowed mother opens 'Dearest Mamma, You cannot possibly imagine how unwilling I am to begin this melancholy letter...' The horror of Duff's death and magnitude of his loss to his family is captured in the letter Hennah wrote to Sophia Duff on 27 October 1805: 'I believe that a more unpleasant task, than that which is now imposed upon me, can scarely fall to the lot of a person ... as being myself the husband of a beloved partner, and the father of children...' There is a monument to Duff in St Paul's Cathedral.
Raeburn's original kit-cat style portrait was painted about 1800 and a mezzotint from it by George Dawe was published in 1806, in Edinburgh, by the Italian carver/gilder and occasional printseller, Pasquale Garof of Hanover Street (see PAG9312). This painting is a copy presented to Greenwich Hospital in 1836 as by 'Geroff' by Duff's 'kinsman' James, Earl of Fife. Garof is not known to have been a painter (and Raeburn died in 1823) so the authorship and date of this version remains to be resolved as does current (2020) whereabouts of the original. A much later copy by Henry Macbeth-Raeburn (b. 1860) is on loan to to the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth.

Object Details

ID: BHC2666
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Raeburn, Henry
Date made: 1836
People: Duff, George; Duff, James
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 1108 mm x 908 mm x 120 mm

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