Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel, 1725-86

A full-length portrait slightly to right facing to left, wearing a version of captain's undress uniform (1748–67), with grey breeches, waistcoat and facings, double lacing on the waistcoat pockets and slightly striped stockings. Keppel is shown striding across a storm-swept beach, pointing with his right hand. There is a rocky cliff on the left and the foaming sea on the right is peppered with thin strokes of brown paint, representing debris from a shipwreck. According to the artist’s former pupil James Northcote, this alludes to a specific incident from Keppel’s career: the wreck of his ship, the ‘Maidstone’, 50 guns, on the Brittany coast on 27 June 1747. The viewer is therefore invited to imagine that the portrait shows Keppel taking command in the aftermath of this disaster. However, Reynolds anachronistically represents Keppel wearing official naval uniform, which was not introduced until nine months after the wreck of the ‘Maidstone’. In the portrait, the breeches, waistcoat and facings of Keppel’s uniform are coloured silver-grey, rather than regulation white. It has been suggested that this may represent an example of the way in which officers (and their tailors) sometimes creatively interpreted the uniform regulations according to their own tastes. Alternatively, the silver-grey colour may have been preferred by the painter for artistic reasons, since it complements the portrait’s stormy colour palette, which appears to have been influenced by sixteenth-century Venetian painting. Reynolds painted this portrait in 1752–3, shortly after returning from a lengthy tour of Italy and the Mediterranean, during which he visited Venice, as well as Rome and Florence. He undertook this trip in order to study classical ruins and Renaissance masterpieces with a view to improving his artistic skills. He had completed his initial training as an artist under the portrait painter Thomas Hudson in the early 1740s and then ran his own portraiture studio in his native Devon until May 1749, when he left for Italy. His trip was facilitated by Keppel, to whom he was introduced by Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe, in spring 1749. At the time, Keppel was about to depart on a diplomatic mission to the Mediterranean and offered Reynolds passage on board his ship, the ‘Centurion’, 50 guns. The two men formed a close friendship during their voyage together. Painted after Reynolds returned to England, this portrait was intended by the artist as a tribute to his naval friend and patron, thanking him for his support. The painting was also used by Reynolds to promote his own artistic talents as he set about establishing a new studio in London, having abandoned his earlier practice in Devon. It is thought that the painter displayed this portrait in his showroom to impress prospective clients. According to Reynolds’s contemporaries, the painting ‘was so much admired, that it completely established the reputation of the Artist’. Keppel’s dynamic pose and the sense of action in the portrait were seen at the time as highly innovative. The figure is often likened to the classical statue, the Apollo Belvedere, but it has more recently been suggested that Reynolds actually borrowed the pose from a seventeenth-century statue of Apollo by the French sculptor Pierre Le Gros (which was itself based upon the Apollo Belvedere). Other artists had previously used the same pose to imbue contemporary sitters with classical gravitas, including notably Allan Ramsay in his portrait of Norman, 22nd Chief of MacLeod, painted in 1747–8 and now at Dunvegan Castle. However, Reynolds set his work apart from those of earlier artists by introducing a greater sense of movement, animation and narrative. X-ray investigation of the portrait has revealed that the artist had originally intended to show Keppel standing in front of a classical column – a traditional backdrop often used in aristocratic portraiture of this period – but he changed his mind and painted over this architectural setting with the stormy scene that we see today. In showing Keppel seemingly in the midst of action, Reynolds blurred the boundaries between portraiture and history painting, a genre defined by the representation of narrative subjects which was viewed in the eighteenth century as the most prestigious form of artistic production. The painting therefore provided a potent demonstration of Reynolds’s artistic ambitions, specifically his desire to elevate portraiture and to suggest the public virtue of his sitters by reference to supposedly higher forms of art. For this reason, this portrait was an important moment in the history of British art, inaugurating a new style of portraiture which took inspiration from “grand manner” historical art and in so doing broke away from an earlier eighteenth-century style characterised by theatrical displays of polite comportment. Expounding his “grand manner” approach, Reynolds became a leading society portrait painter and a highly influential figure in the artistic establishment. In 1768, he became the first President of the Royal Academy and was knighted the following year. Throughout his life, he remained friends with Keppel and he painted the naval officer’s portrait many more times. Keppel was the second son of the Earl of Albemarle, and one of a powerful Whig family who came to England in 1688 with William III. In 1740 he joined Commodore Anson on his four-year voyage round the world in the 'Centurion'. When Reynolds met him in 1749, he was one of the Royal Navy’s rising stars. In 1758, he 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 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. For other portraits of Keppel by Reynolds, see BHC2821, BHC2820 and BHC2822. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2823
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Reynolds, Joshua
Date made: 1752-1753; 1752-53
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Caird Collection
People: Keppel, Augustus
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 2390 x 1475 mm; Frame: 2702 mm x 1795 mm x 140 mm ;Overall: 93.5 kg

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