Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, 1718-82

A full-length portrait facing to left in flag officer's undress uniform, circa 1774–83. A fighting sword is by his left side and he leans on a long telescope that rests on his left foot. The beach on which he stands is littered with naval stores and in the left background are two first-rates, the nearer probably the 'Victory', 100 guns, with a blue ensign and a Union at the mizzen, apparently to distinguish him from the rear-admiral of the blue when at sea without the fleet admiral commanding-in-chief. At the end of 1781, Kempenfelt was sent in the 'Victory', the fleet flagship, with a squadron to intercept an important French convoy which was sailing to reinforce their holdings in the West Indies. Although Kempenfelt found the French escort much stronger than his force, it had been carelessly placed ahead and to leeward of the convoy. He was therefore able to rout the merchantmen undisturbed, taking fifteen and destroying four. The rest were scattered and almost all the survivors returned to Brest. After Howe assumed command in 1782, Kempenfelt shifted to the 'Royal George', 100 guns, as a junior flag officer and he was drowned in her when she sank at anchor at Spithead in August, together with over 800 other people. Kempenfelt was also the inventor of a numeral signal code that helped to revolutionize naval tactics. The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. The exhibition opened on 29 April 1782, four months before Kempenfelt drowned. A review of the exhibition in the Morning Post newspaper suggested that ‘The artist, with all the politeness necessary to his profession, hath deducted twenty years at least from the gallant original, and yet preserved a happy likeness’ (2 May 1782). Kempenfelt had previously sat to Kettle in 1768 for a group portrait with Admiral Samuel Cornish and Thomas Parry, a naval clerk. This earlier group portrait (currently untraced) was included in the Society of Artists special exhibition in September 1768. It represented Cornish in his cabin in the ‘Norfolk’, 74 guns, with Kempenfelt, then his flag captain, and Parry, his secretary, the latter having commissioned the portrait to commemorate the trio’s service together at the Siege of Manila in 1762. Kettle may have received some training as an artist from his father, a coach-painter, and he also attended William Shipley’s drawing school in London. He worked between Oxford and the midlands in 1762–4 and then practised for a time in London. In December 1768, Kettle departed for India to work as an artist. This decision may have been encouraged by Admiral Cornish, who provided him with a letter of recommendation. Kettle arrived in Madras on 2 May 1769, becoming the first professional British artist to make a career in India. He worked there for almost seven years, spending time in Madras, Calcutta and Faizabad. Returning to London in November 1776, he struggled to attract new clientele and relied upon support from his existing network of patrons, including Kempenfelt. Facing financial ruin, Kettle attempted to return to India in 1786 but died en route. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2818
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Kettle, Tilly
Date made: 1782
People: Kempenfelt, Richard; Kempenfelt, Gustavus Adolphus
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 2440 x 1525 mm; Frame: 2720 mm x 1880 mm x 130 mm

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