Commodore the Honourable William Kerr, active 1688–1721

A three-quarter length portrait of Commodore the Honourable William Kerr, active 1688–1721. The sitter is depicted in a brown silk robe and open necked shirt, ‘in dishabille’, a drape of a different brown over his right arm and lower part of his body, and wearing his own hair. His left hand rests on a rock on which are a telescope and a ring dial. The left background is a rock with a palm tree, and in the right background is the ‘Rupert’, starboard-quarter view, wearing an early form of broad pendant.

The sitter was the son of the Scottish nobleman Sir William Kerr (b. 1638) and his wife Agnes Cockburn (m. 1664). His father was the second son of William Kerr, first Earl of Lothian (1605–1675) and held the office of Directory of Chancery, a senior position within the Scottish legal system. On 13 September 1688, the sitter was appointed Second Lieutenant of the ‘Pendennis’, 70 guns, and in May 1680 to command the ‘Deptford’, 50 guns, in the rank of captain. In November 1691, in company with the ‘Chester’, he captured a large French privateer in the Channel, and in October and November 1692 two more. In 1693 he commanded the ‘Lennox’, and the ‘Burlington’ and while commanding the latter he took the decision not to attack some French ships and their prizes off Dunkirk to avoid taking his ships over some shoals, which his pilot refused to do. He was reported by his fellow officer Captain Stephens of the ‘Solebay’, but acquitted at his court martial. In 1702 he was a member of the Board for the court martial of John Munden. While commanding the ‘Revenge’ in 1703 he went to the Mediterranean with Sir Cloudesley Shovell, and on 26 November survived being blown over the Galloper Sand during the ‘Great Storm’. In 1706 he was appointed to the ‘Rupert’ and made Commodore of a squadron to relieve Admiral Whetstone in the West Indies. Following two abortive expeditions against Cartagena and Hispaniola (Cuba), the squadron was made unfit by a virulent attack of the plague. In 1708 he was relieved by Commodore Wager and sent with a convoy to England where complaints about his involvement in the contraband trade awaited, and he was dismissed as a result of an address from the House of Lords to the Queen. Kerr married Catherine Dod (1656–1748), a wealthy heiress from Shropshire. He died on 24 May 1721 and was buried in St Mary Abbotts Church, Kensington.

The museum also holds a portrait of the sitter’s wife Catherine, ZBA9230. Dahl painted the present portrait and ZBA9230 as a pendant pair. The date of this commission is not recorded, although the pair may be speculatively dated to around 1706, since William’s portrait depicts the ‘Rupert’, which he commanded between 1706 and 1708. The two portraits remained together until 1982, when they were sold as separate lots at auction. William’s portrait was purchased for the museum but Catherine’s continued in private hands. It was eventually acquired by the museum in 2019, enabling the two portraits to be displayed together once again, as they were originally designed to be seen.

Colour harmonies establish a visual link between Dahl’s pendant portraits with both William and Catherine wearing shades of brown and red. At the same time, the two paintings show William and Catherine Kerr in different settings, creating separate masculine and feminine identities for the couple. Catherine’s portrait associates her with the feminine qualities of beauty and refinement, depicting her against a backdrop of elegant classical architecture. By contrast, the present portrait highlights William’s public role as a naval officer through the coastal setting, the distant ship, and the telescope and ring dial on the rock in the foreground.

Object Details

ID: BHC4146
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Dahl, Michael
Date made: circa 1706
People: Kerr, William
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 1250 x 1020 mm; Frame: 1350 mm x 1149 mm x 85 mm; Overall Weight: 26.6 kg

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