National Portrait Gallery, London
(Photo: Jessica C, flickr)
A Mysterious Painting
It was a humbling experience some years ago to walk
into the National Portrait Gallery in London, England and ask an
attendant to point out the portrait of Capt. George Vancouver. His
response was, Who?
And it was puzzling to have the attendant look through
the gallerys catalogue and find no mention whatever of the
painting. I distinctly recalled reading that the painting was there.
I subsequently learned they withdrew it from the central collection
some years earlier, and it now hangs in a smaller gallery elsewhere
in the city. Theyre leery about its authenticity: it seems
the painting isnt by the man they thought it was . . . and
the gentleman in the painting may not be Captain Vancouver!
John Kerslake, a deputy keeper of the gallery, wrote in 1961 that
the history of the portrait is unknown before 1878, when it
was purchased for the gallery through Christies from a dealer,
Thomas Ford of Islington. With the picture when it was sent to Christies
was a long strip of paper bearing the following unsigned and unverifiable
remark: Have heard that it many years since belonged to a
West India planter the name of Brooke . . ..
In looking through the gallerys file on the painting I found
a short letterdated June 29, 1878confirming its purchase
for 30 guineas. No mention of the artist is made in the letter.
Someoneit isnt clear who, but it may have been a gallery
officialattributed it to Lemuel Abbott, a well-known portraitist
of the late 1700s and early 1800s who specialized in painting prominent
Englishmen of the day.
But, by the early 50s, the gallery had more Abbotts in its
collection, and a comparison showed this painting could not have
been by him.
Even more unsettling, John Kerslake, an expert,
was deeply uncertain that the man shown in the portrait was really
George Vancouver. He thought the man shown was too old (Vancouver
died at 40), too fat, and was not wearing naval uniform. (A famous
and scurrilous 1796 cartoon by James Gillray, a London caricaturist,
has Vancouver quite portly. This caricature is said to have seriously
damaged Vancouvers reputation. To see it, and to learn what
led to it, go here.)
It is very unusual, Kerslake wrote,
for naval officers to be portrayed out of uniform . . . I
even wonder if it might not be John Vancouver, who saw his
brothers voyages through the press.
If the man shown is John Vancouver, that would be funny: all the
paintings and statues of Capt. George that we knowincluding
the Charles Marega statue of him that has been standing in front
of City Hall for 70 yearsare based on this painting. It would
be amusing to discover that the city hall statue actually shows
Archive - People »
- Places »
- Events »
- Books, etc. »