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Inside The Art of Naval Portraiture book by the National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum in London — part of Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) — has a lot of naval portraiture in its collection. So it's no surprise they have now published a brand new book bringing together some of the very best examples of these artworks in order to explore the medium's history.

The Art of Naval Portraiture examines the museum's portraits of sailors. It's the largest collection of naval portraits in the world, and it includes over 600 paintings of officers and sailors in the Royal Navy from the sixteenth century to the present day.

It's written by Dr Katherine Gazzard, Curator of Art (Post-1800) at Royal Museums Greenwich. She's an expert in eighteenth-century British art, especially portraiture and the cultural history of the Royal Navy. So if anyone knows naval portraits, it's Katherine.

Portraiture has long been an important tool for creating, supporting and challenging notions

of identity. This book explores individual and collective identities within naval portraiture and how these are shaped by ideas of gender, class and race.

The RMG's navy paintings have much to tell us about Britain’s history as a naval power and about the individual experiences of those in service and their families. Innovative and important works of art, for centuries naval portraits have forged, reinforced and challenged ideas of

masculinity, heroism and loyalty and functioned as icons of empire, demonstrations of professionalism and personal mementos for loved ones.

To celebrate the new book, here Katherine picks some of the most important naval portraits included in the publication, and explains why they have helped shape our understanding of the Royal Navy and much more.

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Richard Deane, General at Sea by Robert Walker. About 1653

Painting showing Richard Deane wearing a suit of armour
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

"Before the Royal Navy introduced uniforms for officers in 1748, artists had to rely on props and settings to represent an individual’s seafaring career. Anchors — like the one on which Richard Deane rests his arm in this portrait — were a popular choice.

Not only was an anchor a fundamental piece of equipment on a warship, but it also symbolised steadfastness and resolution. It is rare that the full anchor is shown. After years spent studying naval portraiture, I think I have become an expert in recognising different parts of anchors."

Captain Lord George Graham in his cabin by William Hogarth. 1742–44

Painting showing men around a table on a naval ship
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

"Naval portraits often feature coastal settings with jagged rocks and crashing waves to suggest danger and drama. Portraits of officers in the safety of their cabins are more unusual.

In this portrait, Hogarth uses the informality of the cabin setting to emphasise Captain Lord George Graham’s sense of humour. He is shown meeting his friend, David Mallet, for dinner with musical accompaniment from a singer and a drummer. I love all of the light-hearted touches, including the cook spilling gravy down Mallet’s back and Hogarth’s pug dog — Trump — clowning around in Graham’s discarded wig. One theory is that the painting celebrates the captain’s recovery from a period of depression."

Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel by Joshua Reynolds. 1752–53

Painting showing Augustus Keppel with the ocean in the background
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

"I had to include this portrait because it isn’t just a great naval portrait: it is actually among the most innovative paintings in the history of British art and it launched the career of Joshua Reynolds, who later became the first President of the Royal Academy.

Reynolds shows his friend Augustus Keppel striding across a storm-swept beach, taking command in the aftermath of a shipwreck. Debris from the wreck is visible amidst the churning waves. In capturing a moment of action, the painting stands in contrast to earlier portraits, which tended to have their subjects adopting static positions in front of distant scenery."

— Already excited to read? Buy The Art of Naval Portraiture here

Commander James Clark Ross by John Robert Wildman. 1834

Portrait of James Clark holding a sword
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

"Arctic exploration became a major area of naval activity in the nineteenth century. To represent polar explorers, portrait painters had to combine traditional naval imagery with arctic motifs — from fur cloaks to ice-bound landscapes.

In this portrait, Ross stands beneath the Pole Star with a magnetic dip-circle at his side. This scientific instrument alludes to his discovery of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831. I think he looks very handsome in his massive bearskin cloak, and I’m not the only one: people in Ross’s time thought so too.

For example, a review of the painting published in The Lady’s Magazine in May 1834 declared that he looked like “a very picturesque bundle of fur” and should be “made a pet lion of by the ladies”.

These comments highlight the importance of women as an audience for naval portraiture."

Portrait of a Wren Officer by Joseph McCulloch. 1945

Pastel portrait of a Wren Officer wearing a naval uniform and a hat with a red background
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

"The Women’s Royal Naval Service — also known as the Wrens — was established in 1917, enabling women to undertake official naval roles for the first time.

I was thrilled in late 2022 when Royal Museums Greenwich acquired this pastel portrait of an officer in the Wrens. It was an important and long-overdue addition to the Museum’s collection, being our first portrait of a female officer.

The name of the woman depicted is currently unknown. Her anonymity is typical of how women’s stories have historically been overlooked or disregarded in naval portraiture. The portrait was made by Joseph McCulloch in Chelsea in 1945, and I am hopeful that further research will reveal her identity."

The Art of Naval Portraiture by Katherine Gazzard and published by the National Maritime Museum is available in hardback now.

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