Admiral Augustus Keppel, 1725-86

A three-quarter-length portrait to left wearing flag officer's undress uniform, 1767–83. His outstretched right hand rests on his sword and his left hand is positioned in his breeches pocket. He stands against a coastal background to denote his naval career. The portrait shows the sitter with his hair powdered, even though Keppel was known for always wearing his own hair. The artist was close friends with the sitter and painted his portrait on numerous occasions throughout his life. This particular portrait was commissioned by the sitter as a gift for the lawyer John Lee, after Lee had successfully defended him at a high-profile court martial in early 1779. The emphasis upon Keppel’s sword in the portrait may refer to its formal return at the end of the court martial following his acquittal. The charges against Keppel related to his conduct as the commander of the British fleet at the Battle of Ushant in July 1778. The result of the battle had been inconclusive, giving rise to a bitter dispute between Keppel and his second-in-command Hugh Palliser over what had gone wrong. The whole affair was politically charged, for Keppel had the support of the opposition Whigs whereas Palliser was backed by the Tory government. Following his acquittal, Keppel sent gifts of £1000 to his legal advisors, a group which comprised of Edmund Burke, John Dunning and Thomas Erskine, as well as Lee. However, all but Erskine, the least wealthy of the group, returned the money. In his reply, Lee commented that he did not want to be seen to have acted in a good cause only for his own financial advantage. He suggested that, instead of a cash payment, Keppel could “make me a present of your picture”, believing that the gift of a portrait was more honourable, since it implied gentlemanly regard and political association. Although Lee requested that Keppel sit to the painter Nathaniel Dance, the admiral instead commissioned his good friend Reynolds to produce this portrait. He then commissioned a further two copies of the portrait for Edmund Burke and John Dunning. Dunning’s copy is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Keppel was the second son of the Earl of Albemarle and one of a powerful Whig family who came to England with William III in 1688. At the age of fifteen in 1740, Keppel sailed with Commodore George Anson on his four-year voyage around the world. He then served as a captain in the Western Squadron before being made commodore and sent on diplomatic mission to the Mediterranean in 1749. It was at this time that he was introduced to Reynolds, who was then painting portraits in Plymouth. Keppel offered the young artist passage to the Mediterranean on board his flagship so that he could study classical ruins and Renaissance masterpieces in Italy. This voyage marked the beginning of their lifelong friendship. Keppel subsequently led a small expedition to capture the island fortress of Gorée on the West African coast in 1758 and commanded the ‘Torbay’, 74 guns, at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. In August 1762, he was second-in-command to Sir George Pocock at the capture of Havana, gaining promotion to rear-admiral a few months later. In the late 1760s and the 1770s, he pursued a political career on shore but returned to sea in early 1778. However, after the Battle of Ushant and the subsequent court-martial, he retired from active service, becoming a viscount in 1782 and dying in 1786. Personally he was a man of great charm and Admiral Boscawen judged there was ‘no better seaman than Keppel, few so good, and not a better officer’. Small in stature and popular with seamen, who called him 'Little Keppel', he lost many of his teeth to scurvy during his voyage with Anson and all but early portraits show the permanently dented nose he got when attacked by a footpad. Reynolds completed his initial training as an artist under the portrait painter Thomas Hudson in the early 1740s. He then worked for time in Plymouth before travelling to Italy with Keppel in 1749. In 1753, he set up in London and rapidly began to make a name as portrait painter, profoundly influenced by his time in Italy. 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, creating portraits in a new style that were deemed fresh and modern, and yet dignified the status of the sitter. For other portraits of Keppel by Reynolds, see BHC2821, BHC2823 and BHC2820. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2822
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Reynolds, Joshua
Date made: 1779
People: Keppel, Augustus; Lee family Lee Mainwaring family Hamilton, F. J. Hamilton, F. S.
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 1444 mm x 1205 mm x 85 mm;Overall: 32 kg;Painting: 1270 mm x 1015 mm

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