Commodore the Honourable Augustus Keppel

A three-quarter-length portrait in captain's (over three years) undress uniform, 1748–67. Keppel’s right hand is thrust into his waistcoat and he wears a hat and his own hair. The hand-in-waistcoat pose shown in this portrait was often used in mid-eighteenth-century British portraiture, being understood to connote manly boldness tempered with modesty. However, Reynolds subtly subverts this iconography of polite restraint through the dynamic attitude of the sitter’s head and his sideways glance. In the left background is a rock face with foliage and on the right there is a squadron of ships headed by the 'Centurion', 54 guns, flying a commodore's broad pendant. Keppel was a commodore in the ‘Centurion’ between 1749 and 1752, during which time he undertook a diplomatic mission in the Mediterranean. In the portrait, smoke billows from the guns of the ‘Centurion’. This may refer to an incident in June 1749, when the ‘Centurion’ accidentally returned a twenty-one-gun salute from the dey of Algiers by firing a loaded gun, creating a diplomatic incident that Keppel was required to brazen out. This portrait was probably painted at Port Mahon, Minorca, during August and December 1749, the artist having accompanied Keppel to the Mediterranean after they were introduced in Plymouth by Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe in spring 1749. Reynolds stayed in Minorca painting portraits of the British garrison until January 1750, when he set off independently for Italy and spent the next two years travelling and studying art in Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris. This portrait was the first of many portraits of Keppel painted by Reynolds and marked the beginning of a close lifelong friendship between the two men. Their closeness is suggested by a letter that Reynolds sent to his patron Lord Edgcumbe in 1750, which describes how, during the voyage to the Mediterranean, ‘I had the use of [Keppel’s] cabin, and his study of books, as if they had been my own; and when he went ashore he generally took me with him; so that I not only had the opportunity of seeing a great deal, but I saw it with all the advantages as if I had travelled as his equal.’ Keppel, the second son of the Earl of Albemarle, was one of a powerful Whig family of Dutch origin, who came to England with William III. In 1740 he served under Commodore Anson on his four-year voyage round the world and subsequently became a successful young captain. In 1758, Keppel commanded a small expedition, which captured the island fortress of Goree, off Dakar on the West African coast. At the Battle of Quiberon Bay, 20 November 1759, he commanded the 'Torbay', 74 guns, and played a notable part by sinking the French 'Thesée', 74 guns. In 1761 he commanded the naval forces at the capture of Belle Ile and, in the following year, he was second-in-command to Sir George Pocock at the capture of Havana. During this time he became a rear-admiral. On this expedition his elder brother, Lord Albemarle, was Commander-in-Chief and another brother was a general officer on his staff. Keppel commanded the Channel fleet in the early years of the American War of Independence, 1775–83, but found the fleet unprepared. On 27 July 1778, in the 'Victory', 100 guns, he led the fleet in an indecisive battle with the French off Ushant. His second-in-command, Sir Hugh Palliser, gave him inadequate support and the resulting quarrel split the Navy. Keppel, a Whig, was tried by court-martial, at which Palliser, a Tory, conducted the prosecution. When Keppel was acquitted he became the hero of the hour but the whole affair was politically charged. Keppel retired from active service, entered Parliament as MP for Surrey, and became a Viscount in 1782. Throughout his life, he remained close friends with Reynolds. The artist had been apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson in 1740 and began practising as an independent artist in his native Devon in 1743, before travelling to the Mediterranean with Keppel. In 1753, on his return from Italy, Reynolds set up in London and rapidly began to make a name as portrait painter, profoundly influenced by his travels. He became the first President of the Royal Academy in 1768 and was knighted in 1769. He was the most influential figure of the century in elevating British painting and portraiture. Reynolds borrowed poses from the old masters and by 1759 he had created social portraits in a new style that were deemed fresh and modern, and yet dignified the status of the sitter. The portrait is inscribed 'The Honourable Commodore Augustus Keppel', and signed and dated 'Josh Reynolds 1749'. For other portraits of Keppel by Reynolds, see BHC2823, BHC2820 and BHC2822. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2821
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Reynolds, Joshua
Date made: 1749
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Collecting for the 21st Century
People: Keppel, Augustus
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund.
Measurements: Frame: 1489 mm x 1238 mm x 80 mm x 33.5 kg;Painting: 1270 mm x 1015 mm

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