The man who lost America?
This splendid, half-length portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, was painted in 1785 and exhibited to great acclaim in the artist’s annual exhibition at Schomberg House the following year. The sitter, Thomas Graves, was a major figure in the naval conflicts of the 1780s and 1790s; he commanded the British force at the Battle of Chesapeake in 1781, an indecisive action which indirectly led to General Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown and the loss of America. Painted after the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War and shortly before Graves was to distinguish himself under Lord Howe during the Battle of the 1 June, the portrait can be seen as an important public statement of Graves’s position following sustained attacks by his subordinate, Samuel Hood, following the Battle of Chesapeake. The contemporary press accounts of the portrait, principally Henry Bate writing in the Morning Herald, suggest that Gainsborough was conscious of Graves’s campaign to clear his name. Made at the height of Gainsborough’s powers, Admiral Thomas Graves is a remarkably fluid depiction of a man of action and a quintessential example of Gainsborough’s grand manner portraiture.
Thomas Graves was a conventional career sailor. He fought in the Seven Year’s War, serving at the bombardment of Le Havre under Admiral George Rodney. Although court-martialled for failing to engage a French East-Indiaman in the Channel in 1756, his career seems not to have suffered and by 1779 he had been promoted to be Rear-Admiral of the Blue. In March 1780, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, he was ordered to prepare a squadron to reinforce the North American Station. Before he could sail he had to suppress a mutiny, occasioned by his men not having been paid. George III wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, that: ‘the conduct of the rear-admiral on this occasion shows that he is both a man of sense and resolution.’
Graves was in New York by July 1780 and the following year Graves assumed command of the North American Station, following the continued ill-health of Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot. Graves found the force in need of considerable reform and re-equipment. Graves was also faced with rebuilding personal relationships with other commanders, particularly Rodney in the West Indies. Despite stressing in his dispatch to Rodney the importance of early information of the movements of the French squadron in the Caribbean, fearful that they would reinforce the French force under the command of de Barras at Rhode Island, no information was forthcoming.
Thus it was the arrival of Admiral Samuel Hood at New York in August 1781 which was the first news Graves had that a large force under the command of Admiral de Grasse had sailed to reinforce de Barras. Hood had failed to spot the French fleet on his way from the Caribbean, arriving in the Chesapeake Bay some four days ahead of de Grasse. The combined forces of Hood and Graves sailed for the Chesapeake Bay with a combined force of nineteen ships of the line. On the morning of 5 September, 1781, the British fleet, sighted the French fleet at anchor inside the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse moved quickly to put his ships to sea, where he could manoeuvred against the British. In their haste, the twenty-four French ships rounded Cape Henry in an undisciplined mass and failed to form a proper battle line. At this point, the British fleet had the opportunity to defeat the vessels as they emerged from the Bay. Instead, Graves stopped to form a line of battle, which allowed the French to prepare for the coming action.
The battle was indecisive, although, with a significantly smaller force, Graves inflicted considerable damage on the French. During the battle, despite consistently signaling the rear division, commanded by Hood, to engage, Hood’s force did not come into effective range of the French. This was later blamed on conflicting signals being issued by Graves.
For the next two days the rival fleets manoeuvred within sight of each other, but no further engagements took place. The objective for de Grasse was not to destroy the British fleet, but protect the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. On 11 September, he ordered his ships back to anchorage inside the Bay's entrance. There he found that the eight French ships from Newport had successfully arrived. The British realised that the addition of these ships brought the French fleet to thirty. Facing this overwhelming strength, Graves withdrew to New York.
Graves arrived back in New York on 20 September where he found a message from Cornwallis stating that if he was not relieved he would be forced to surrender. Graves set about forming a relief force of 7,000 men and immediately sailed, arriving off the Chesapeake on 24 October. Cornwallis had surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown on October 19: this effectively ended the American Revolutionary War.
Before Graves could return to London to defend his actions, Samuel Hood had dispatched a series of letters condemning his conduct and the way the battle had been fought. Hood appeared to have better access to public opinion than Graves. Graves found himself, perhaps unjustifiably, the principal candidate for naval failure and George Germain even proposed he should be court martialled, a course which Lord Sandwich refused to countenance. The reality was that Graves went to the capes with a force made inadequate by wrong decisions in the West Indies and that in the battle half of Graves’s squadron, Hood’s division, did not get into action. Graves returned to England in October 1782 in an atmosphere of furious charge and counter-charge for the loss of Yorktown. Public opinion was stirred against him by letters of Hood from America and by Admiral Rodney’s speeches in the House of Commons.
Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait can be read as part of Graves’s attempt to clear his name and present himself publicly in the wake of sustained attacks. Graves seems to have gained the support of the Reverend Henry Bate Dudley, the owner and editor of the Morning Herald, who was, in turn a major supporter of Thomas Gainsborough. In August 1785 Bate noted in the Morning Herald:
‘The pencil of Mr Gainsborough has lately been exercised in painting the portrait of Admiral Graves: - an officer of the first professional merit and ability, and a striking contrast to that arrogant naval Lord, whose assured consequence, is founded in idle parade and selfish ostentation.’
The ‘naval Lord’ is presumably a reference to Samuel Hood, who had been made an Irish peer as Baron Hood of Catherington in September 1782 and who continued to issue letters criticising Graves and his conduct. The idea of using a portrait to reaffirm or reinforce public opinion was commonplace by the 1780s. Following a sensational court-martial, Admiral Augustus Keppel was acquitted of charges of insubordination and turned to portraiture as a way of publicising his innocence. His friend, Joshua Reynolds, produced a celebrated full-length portrait (now in the National Maritime Museum) shortly after the conclusion of the case in 1779.
Bate continued his praise of Graves and approbation of Gainsborough’s portrait in the pages of the Morning Herald:
‘It is an excellent portrait of that unaffected officer, whose professional merit has suffered somewhat by detraction, but who will long be revered by a body of the navy of the first respect to whom his worth is known.’
Graves’s portrait was finished by the end of 1785. Graves is shown confidently standing in Naval Uniform, his hand resting on a letter addressed prominently to: ‘Rear Admiral Graves’ at Plymouth, underlining the continued confidence he received from his superiors. The billowing red drapery behind Graves himself, his resolute gaze and solid stance all suggest the ‘unaffected officer of merit’ puffed by Bate. The portrait also shows evidence of Gainsborough’s continuing interest in Van Dyck. Gainsborough’s virtuosic handling of paint in passages such as the gloved hand holding his other glove and the rippling linen on the cuff and stock all point to his appreciation of Van Dyck. Gainsborough has injected in what might be a fairly formulaic portrait of the 1780s a sense of grandeur and virtuosity which he usually reserved for his most important commissions. It is striking that Gainsborough uses the motif of the hand holding the glove in another of his most important portraits of the period, the full-length depiction of Charles, 11th Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle also painted in 1785.
Gainsborough had fallen out with the Royal Academy in 1784 following their refusal to submit to his somewhat unreasonable hanging instructions. With the support of Bate and the Morning Herald, Gainsborough instead mounted an annual exhibition of his work in his exhibition room at Schomberg House at the same time at the Academy’s annual exhibition. Grave’s portrait was shown in the 1786 exhibition. It again drew praise from Bate, who noted that:
‘The portrait of Admiral Graves, a half length, is finished in the best stile; nothing can exceed the colouring.’
This is notable praise given the fact that it hung in the company of Gainsborough’s full-length portraits of The Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Coke, now at Holkham Hall, and Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. In the review for the exhibition, Bate gave a neat assessment of Gainsborough’s late style which encapsulates the portrait of Graves, writing about Lady de Dunstanville, Bated noted that it was:
‘delicately touched; the most exquisite softness pervades the whole. The hands are finished with the beauty of Vandyke – This picture, from the tenderness of the colouring, should not be hung at a great elevation – its effect will else be diminished.’
Shortly after the completion of his portrait, Thomas Graves was promoted vice-admiral of the blue and in 1788 made commander-in-chief at Plymouth. On the outbreak of war with the French in 1793 he was appointed second in command of the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe. He became admiral of the blue and aboard in flagship, the Royal Sovereign, played an important part in the success of the Battle of the 1st of June. He was raised to the Irish peerage as Baron Graves and awarded a gold medal and chain and a pension of £1,000 per annum.
Gainsborough’s depiction of Graves raises questions about the strategies of self-promotion open to painters and sitters in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Gainsborough was famous for his sagacious use of the popular press to promote his work and it is notable that this particular portrait elicited numerous press mentions. More specifically it is notable that those mentions highlight Graves’s qualities and recent criticisms, suggesting that Gainsborough, Graves and Bate worked in concert. The portrait itself is a particularly bold example of Gainsborough’s late style, the fluid, painterly approach perfectly demonstrates his continued interest in the works of Van Dyck, whilst the careful characterisation underlines his qualities as a portraitist. Graves’s reputation continues to fluctuate and scholars remain divided as to whether he could have been more effective in the face of an overwhelming French force and whether he deserves the epithet: the man who lost America.
- Eds. George Barnes and John Owen, ‘The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty’, Navy Records Society, vol.76, 1932-1938, p.243.
- For an authoritative account of the battle see Kenneth Breen, ‘Divided command: the West Indies and the North America, 1780-1781’, eds. J. Black and P. Woodfine, The British Navy and the use of naval power in the eighteenth century, London, 1988, pp.191-206.
- For Graves defense see ed. F. Chadwick, ‘The Graves Papers; and other documents relating to naval operations of the Yorktown campaign’, The Naval History Society, New York, 1916.
- The Morning Herald, August 11, 1785.
- For Reynolds and Augustus Keppel see David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, vol.1, p.1048.
- William T. Whitley Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1915, p.244.
- The Morning Herald, December 30, 1786.
- The Morning Herald, December 30, 1786.