Commodore Keppel by Sir Joshua Reynolds


A three-quarter-length portrait slightly to the left facing to right in captain's (over three years) undress uniform, 1748-1767. This uniform was introduced in 1748 immediately before the portrait was painted. In the right background the ships of his squadron are shown together with the 'Centurion', 54 guns, flying his commodore's broad pendant.

Keppel, the second son of the Earl of Albemarle, was one of a powerful Whig family of Dutch origin, who came to England with William III. In 1740 he served under Anson in the 'Centurion' on his four-year voyage round the world. At the Battle of Quiberon Bay, 20 November 1759, Keppel commanded the 'Torbay', 74 guns, and played a notable part by sinking the French 'Thesee', 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 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.

This portrait was probably painted at Port Mahon, Minorca, when Reynolds accompanied Keppel to the Mediterranean on a mission to negotiate against the depredations of Barbary corsairs. Lord Edgcumbe had introduced Reynolds to Keppel in early 1749 and on 11 May the painter sailed with him from Plymouth for Minorca. He spent the rest of the year there, painting portraits of the British garrison. This was the first of many portraits of Keppel painted by Reynolds and marked the beginning of a close lifelong friendship between them.


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