Captain William Locker, 1731-1800
A half-length portrait of Captain William Locker, apparently as Lieutenant-Governor of Greenwich Hospital, a role he held from 1793 when ill health forced him to give up service afloat and in which he continued to his death in 1800. This portrait shows Locker in late-middle to old age, consistent with the suggested date. He is seated to the left, facing forward towards the viewer, wearing a naval-style blue coat with gold buttons. In his left hand he holds a 'quizzing-stick', a barley twist cane with an eyeglass, which he used to scrutinize the pensioners at Greenwich Hospital. Behind the sitter's arm, in the background to the left, the artist has painted the mast of a ship as a reminder of Locker's naval career. This apparently bears a commodore's broad pennant, the most senior rank that Locker attained, since he did not live long enough to reach substantive flag rank by seniority. Locker is best known as Nelson's first captain after he became a lieutenant in 1777. As well as commissioning this portrait of himself from Abbott, Locker also invited the artist to sketch Nelson’s portrait at Greenwich in 1797. The resulting old study was used by Abbott to create up to 40 subsequent portraits of Nelson, the first of which was owned by Locker. It was also Locker's original suggestion, in 1795, that the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital be converted into a 'national gallery of naval art', an idea which, although not pursued in Locker’s lifetime, was subsequently brought to fruition by his son Edward Hawke Locker in 1823–4. Locker was a considerable patron of artists, his portrait being painted twice by Gilbert Stuart (BHC2846, BHC2976), in watercolour as 'The Old Commodore' by David Wilkie, and by Dominic Serres, from whom he also commissioned other views. Serres’s portrait is now in the Yale Center for British Art. Abbott’s portrait was stipple-engraved by James Heath in the late 1790s (PAF3488) and purchased by the Museum, via Christie's, in 1961 from a private owner. The artist had established his first studio in London around 1780. He painted relatively few women and seems to have specialised in male portraiture, finding particular favour among naval officers. Standing unsuccessfully for election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1788 and again in 1798, Abbott failed to gain admission to the inner circles of the artistic establishment but he was recognised for his remarkable skill in capturing likenesses. In his ‘Anecdotes of Painting’ (1808), Edward Edwards wrote that ‘the heads of [Abbott’s] male portraits were perfect in their likenesses, particularly those which he painted from the naval heroes of the present time.’ Suffering from mental illness, Abbott was certified insane in July 1798 and died in what was described by the diarist Joseph Farington as ‘a state of insanity’ in 1803. (Updated April 2019.)
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