Sir Isaac Coffin, 1759 -1839, Admiral of the Blue

Unframed rectangular miniature in watercolour on ivory, (upper left and lower right corners damaged) in a purple-velvet-lined black leather case, with a gilt clasp and stand. The sitter is shown bust length turned to his right but looking out to the viewer, in 1825 flag-officer's full-dress uniform, against a neutral grey-brown background.. The visible epaulette bears the three stars of an admiral (with only the top of the outer one just visible). He has blue eyes and wears his natural grey hair cut short. The unpainted top edge of the ivory sheet bears an inscription reading ' ...5 Haymarket ...' . Coffin was born in Boston, Mass., son of a customs officer, of old Nantucket stock. He entered the Navy in 1773, his early career being passed on the American station. He became lieutenant in 1764, commander in 1781 and post-captain in 1782, in the 'Shrewsbury' , 74, after being present as a volunteer on Hood's flagship 'Barfleur' at the Battle of Frigate Bay, St Kitts. He was subsequently in command of the 20-gun 'Hydra' and, after spending some time in France in 1786, of the frigate 'Thisbe' taking Lord Dorchester to Quebec. He also later returned him to England in the 'Alligator', 20, in 1791. This early part of Coffin's career was dogged by administrative and legal controversies, and both before and after his 1790-91 commission in the 'Alligator' he spent some time abroad, latterly with a view to entering foreign service. When war broke out with France in 1793, however, he was appointed to the 'Melampus', 36, but the following year gave up sea commands owing to recurring effects of a double hernia, sustained in the 'Alligator'. Thereafter his service was ashore; as regulating captain at Leith; naval commissioner in Corsica, 1795-96; at Lisbon, 1796-98, and Minorca, 1798-99. He was then appointed dockyard commissioner at Sheerness but instead went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his six months of martinet discipline was considered a reign of terror, his subsequent period at Sheerness being similar. He none the less had the confidence of the Admiralty (dominated by his patron, the Earl of St Vincent for most of this time) and in May 1804 was made a baronet, a month after reaching flag rank. He subsequently served as admiral-superintendent at Portsmouth until promoted vice-admiral in April 1808: his final promotion, in 1814, was to Admiral of the Blue. In 1810 Coffin patented a 'perpetual oven' for baking ship's biscuit. Working on a continuous belt system this is regarded as a pioneering step towards modern mass-baking. He married in 1811 and briefly adopted the family name of Greenly, that of his heiress wife, as a pre-condition; but her eccentricities (as a religious writer) led to separation in March 1813 after which he fell back on Coffin. Having made good investments, he died a wealthy man at Cheltenham on 23 July 1839, with no direct family. Coffin had many interests and retained close links with New England, which he last visited about 1829 and to which he sent prizewinning English racehorses, plants, and European turbot, to improve local stock. For some years in the 1820s he funded a Massachussets-based navigation training brig called 'Clio' which went as far the coast of Brazil and (controversially in 1826) to Quebec, and in 1827 he founded the Coffin School on Nantucket which lasted into the early 20th century and now (2010) houses the Egan Maritime Institute, a heritage organization. Coffin's 1886 biography by his American cousin, Thomas C. Amory, states that the School then held his portrait by Beechey, which appears to remain there: an earlier one as a flag officer by Gilbert Stuart (then in the Amory family) was engraved as Amory’s frontispiece, and a print by Ripley from an earlier miniature of him in captain's uniform appeared in the ‘Naval Chronicle’ (1804, see PAH5867). None of these, however, appear to be the source of a further print (PAF3564), and there seems to have been at least one other late oil. All these appear to show him in the 1795-1812 uniform, so the present miniature is presumably the last known image of him. Coffin also supported naval education in England. Just before his death, and after three donations to the Royal Naval School, he added a fourth with a note widely reported as 'characteristic' , including in 'The Times' (11 June 1839): 'Fearful I may suddenly "slip my wind", and in the hurry of departure forget to order my bankers to set aside 100L. for the Naval School, … I herewith send the necessary document.' Though the artist has so far been unidentified it has been suggested (May 2014) that the artist may be Charles Jagger of Bath (1770-1827) based on comparison with others by him in the Holburne Museum, Bath, though if so it would be a late example. [PvdM 9/10]

Object Details

ID: MNT0072
Collection: Fine art
Type: Miniature
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Anonymous; unidentified Jagger, Charles
Date made: 1812-14; After 1825
People: Coffin, Isaac; Anonymous
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Overall: 100 x 74 mm
Parts: Sir Isaac Coffin, 1759 -1839, Admiral of the Blue

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