Reynolds 300: Portrait of Augustus Keppel

Reynolds 300: Portrait of Augustus Keppel

18 May 2023

Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel (1752) made him famous. Keppel was a well-known up-and-coming naval officer who was greatly admired by the public and nobility alike, and Reynolds used this painting to market his artistic skills and unique style of portraiture.

Keppel (1725-1786) was the second son of the Earl of Albemarle and joined the Royal Navy at the age of 10. At 15, he joined George Anson’s voyage around the world to disrupt Spanish colonial trade in the Pacific.

Reynolds was introduced to Keppel by Lord Edgcumbe in 1749 and they became life-long friends. In 1749, Keppel was sent to the Mediterranean to negotiate with Barbary Corsairs (pirates) who were threatening trade in the region and regularly raided coastal settlements in Europe and captured merchant ships.

The Barbary Corsairs were notorious slave traders and captured up to an estimated 1.25 million Europeans between the 16th and 19th Centuries for use as slaves in North Africa. Keppel’s involvement in halting the trading of (mostly) White European slaves whilst European nations were operating the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade speaks to the double standards and hypocrisy of the time.

Reynolds sailed from Plymouth with Keppel on this voyage and travelled on to Italy where he studied for two years. He painted this grand portrait of Keppel, which is on loan to the ‘Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration’ exhibition from the National Maritime Museum, on his return to London in 1752.

The pose copies a celebrated statue known as the Apollo Belvedere and shows Keppel as the embodiment of heroic masculinity, classical male beauty, and martial prowess. Keppel is depicted as a rugged hero as he issues orders to his men in the wake of his ship The Maidstone being wrecked.

In 1758, Keppel was sent to capture the Island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal, from the French. Gorée played a role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with enslaved Africans forced to build much of the island’s infrastructure. There were also dungeons which housed enslaved Africans before they were exported overseas. The House of Slaves on Gorée is home to the infamous ‘Door of No Return’, said to be the last time enslaved peoples marked for export would touch African soil (although this claim is disputed amongst historians).

Keppel was also involved in the Battle of Havana during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) which led to the capture of Cuba by the British. He received £25,000 (£3,193,751.13) as a reward and was made Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica Station. He also served as First Lord of the Admiralty during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

He was made a full admiral in 1778 and given command of the Western Squadron, the main fleet prepared against France. The Western Squadron was based out of the Plymouth Dockyard in Devonport. Keppel died in 1786 unmarried and without children, although he was beloved and idolised by his naval colleagues.