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A conversation piece of two gentlemen, now identified as Captain (later Admiral) Sir George Pocock (1706-1792) and Captain Digby Dent RN in an interior, before a painting of the bombardment of the Iron Castle at Portobello of November 1739.
Oil painting on canvas size 20 x 26.5 inches (26 x 32.5 inches framed), and contained in its fine original carved and giltwood “Maratta” frame
Provenance: acquired from Agnews by Lady Eccles (as “Captain Cook and a friend”)
Painted circa 1753/4
NB. The following notes are a distillation of research undertaken by Stephen Wood MA FSA, former director of the United Services Museum, Edinburgh, to identify the sitters in the portrait. A copy of the full report is available for perusal.
This charming picture had traditionally been identified (with no plausibility whatsoever) as “Captain Cook and his friend.” Recent research shows that the sitters can be accurately identified from the internal evidence of the picture itself as Sir George Pocock and Digby Dent.
The naval engagement depicted on the wall must pre-date 1748 and is thus likely to be from the War of Jenkins' Ear or the War of the Spanish Succession, which ran seamlessly from 1739-1748. The most obvious candidate therefore for a ship-to-shore action (as depicted) is thus the famous and memorable bombardment of the Iron Castle of Porto Bello, at Panama in Central America. This expedition to capture Porto Bello was led by Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) with a squadron of six ships. That such a small fleet could capture such a fearsome target was considered exceptional by contemporary opinion, and the participants were feted on their return to England: streets and pubs were named after them throughout the country.
It seems reasonable to surmise, then, that the naval officer depicted had either been present at the battle, or his ship had been there. Vernon’s flagship was HMS Burford (70 guns; Captain Thomas Watson), a two-decker third-rate launched at Deptford 1722 and broken up 1752. The five other participating ships and their officers have been checked to see if any had the rank of post-captain between 1748 and c.1755 with three-plus years’ seniority. Of the six captains, only two were still living and in the rank at that period: Charles Brown and Digby Dent. There is a portrait of Brown at the National Maritime Museum (BHC 2578), but it bears no resemblance to the present sitters: he would have been much older, anyway. No portrait of Digby Dent has been identified.
The Captain portrayed in the present picture, however, bears a remarkable and convincing likeness to Captain Sir George Pocock (1706-1792) in the two portraits of c.1761 by Thomas Hudson. Pocock himself was not present at Porto Bello, but he did serve as lieutenant from 1725 on HMS Burford before he took his first command, of HMS Bridgewater, in 1733. By 1748-55, Pocock was living in London as a wealthy unemployed officer of the rank of post-captain with three years’ seniority. He thus “fits” the evidence of the picture perfectly.
Furthermore he married (1763) Sophia Pitt Dent (1733-67), a daughter of George Francis Drake (1696-1741) and widow of Captain Digby Dent RN. The latter had been married her in 1750, when Dent is described as a friend of Pocock’s – which may mean they served together on board ship. Given this close relationship, and the fact that Dent had been Captain of HMS Hampton Court at Porto Bello, it seems likely that the figure on the right is he, who was based in England after 1748 until his death in 1761.
George Pocock born 6th March 1706 at Thames Ditton; entered navy 1718; was appointed lieutenant in 1725; master and commodore 1733; captain 1738; in London 1749 – July 1754 when given command of the Cumberland; rear-admiral of the white squadron 1755; rear-admiral of the red 1756; vice-admiral of the white 1757; vice-admiral of the red 1758; Knight Bachelor 1761; admiral of the blue 1762; retired 1766. Member of Parliament (Plymouth) 1760-68
Comparative illustration: Sir George Pocock (1761) by Thomas Hudson. The likeness with the present sitter is very telling (NPG)
Digby Dent RN Lieutenant 1726; Captain of the Hampton Court(70 guns 500 men)1739 at Porto Bello ; HMS Tilbury 1741; Comptroller of the Navy 1756; died as Commodore 1761. His wife (m. 1st September 1750) was Sophia Pitt Drake, of the Buckland Abbey family, who was born at Fort St George, India, 4th December 1733. She re-married George Pocock; their daughter married John, 4th Earl Poulett.
The following account, a letter from on board the Burford written first hand, gives a flavour of the attack on Porto Bello:
“Bello is situate in the Cod of a Bay, about a Mile deep, and near Half a Mile broad at the mouth of the Harbour, where a strong Castle (Castle Hierro [Ferro], or Iron Castle) and Fort, stood on the the Side of a steep Rock, with 300 Men and 100 great Guns. On the different side, but about a Mile further up, stood Castle Gloria, larger than the other, having 400 Men and 120 Guns, most of them the largest ever seen. This was also situate on the Side of a very high Rock, and under the Cannon of it and Fort St. Jeronymo, which was a strong Battery nearly opposite, all the Ships rode at Anchor belonging to the Harbour.
On the 21st of Nov. about Two o'Clock, we came up with Porto Bello Harbour, where the Spaniards had hoisted upon the Iron Castle the Flag of Defiance; and as we were told by themselves afterwards, they wish'd earnestly for our attempting to come in, as believing they could sink us all immediately; but said they fear'd we were only making a second Bastimento Expedition, and would not give them the pleasure of engaging us. And indeed the Place was exceeding strong, both by Art and Nature. But they were soon gratify'd in their Wishes. for the Hampton Court made directly opposite to the Castle, being in the Van; and as the Wind died away. she dropp'd her Anchor before it, receiving a very brisk Fire from the Spaniards at the Distance of little more than a Cable's Length. She soon convinc'd them that she was both willing and able to return it, for in about 25 minutes she fir'd near 400 shot against the Castle; so that nothing was to been seen but Fire and Smoak on both Sides.
The Norwich then came up next, who met with the same reception; and altho' she did fire quite so quick as the Hampton Court, yet we could observe that her Shot was so well aim'd, as to put the Spaniards a good deal off their Metal, hardly returning her one Gun for three.In 28 minutes the Worcester got up also, who anchoring close by the other two, did no small Execution against the Castle, in a little Time knocking down the higher Part of it, a driving many of the Spaniards from their Guns. We made all the Sail possible and came before the Castle with the Blue Flag at our Fore-Top-Mast Head, and the Boody Flag at our Main-Top-Mast Head, in 20 minutes after the Worcester. The Admiral, whose Conduct and Courage is hard to be parallell'd, order'd our Anchor to be dropped within half a Cable's Length of the Castle, as being resolved to convince them we were in no way afraid of all they could do. Notwithstanding they had discharged very few Guns for some Minutes before we came up, yet, as if they had resolved to summon up all their Courage against the Flag, they welcom'd us with a terrible Volley, which being at so short a distance, took place with almost every Shot. One struck away the Stern of our Barge; another broke a large Gun upon our Upper-deck; a third went thro' our Fore-Top-Mast; and a fourth passing thro' the Awning within two Inches of our Main Mast, broke down the Barricado of our Quarter-Deck, very near the Admiral, and kill'd three Men dead in a Moment, wounding another five which stood by them. This looked as if we should have bloody Work, but was far from discouraging our brave Fellows (who in every Ship were so zealous as hardly to be restrain'd from firing) for we return'd their salute in such a Manner that altho' they fired a Shot now and then, yet they never did us the least Damage afterwards. We drove them from all their lower Guns the first Broad-side, and by a Spring upon our Cable, bringing about our Starboard Guns we gave them another in three Minutes, and so on for six or seven Rounds, which made them quite sick of the Affair, and we could observe them flying for Refuge into the Ambuscades.
The Admiral, taking advantage of this remission, order'd out the boats with our third Lieutenant Mr Broderick, and about 40 sailors, as also a Company of Marines and their Officers, whom he commanded to land under the Fire of our Guns in the very Front of their lower Battery; and making a signal for two other Ships to follow the Example, they all landed safe but two Soldiers, which were killed by small Arms from the Castle. One Man set himself close under an Embrasure, whilst another climbed on his Shoulders, and entered under the Mouth of a great Gun. This so dismayed the Spaniards, that they threw down their Arma and fled to the Top of the Castle; from whence scaling backwards, we could see them run into the Woods by Hundreds and fly for their Lives.
The Gloria and Jeronymo Forts kept firing towards us all the Time of Action, but most of their Shot fell short, or flew over our Rigging. After we had got Possession of the Iron Castle, we try'd to reach them with our lower-Deck Guns, and could observe that in a few Minutes we were so fortunate as to have struck down their Flag-Staff at Gloria Castle and beat down several Houses in the Town; we also sunk a Sloop near Gloria Castle.”
Nathaniel Dance was born in London on 18th May 1735, the third son of George Dance the elder and his wife Elizabeth, nee Gould. His forebears were a well-known family of architects and builders: his father was Clerk-of-the Works to the City of London, and designed The Mansion House, the home of the Lord Mayor of London.
Nathaniel attended the Merchant Taylors' School between 1743 and 1748, and shortly afterwards became a pupil of the popular and successful painter of Histories and Conversations, Francis Hayman. Dance’s earliest known work (of 1753) is his portrait of George Dance the younger and his sister Hester. After his training by Hayman, Dance departed for Rome and the Grand Tour, arriving in Rome in May 1754. The present painting must have been executed shortly before his departure. Certainly, it bears strong resemblances, both tonally, technically and compositionally to the group of Conversation Pieces of grand tourists which he executed in Rome in the following few years.
Dance remained in Rome for a decade, returning to London in 1765, having received further training from Pompeo Batoni. His work in London took on an altogether grander appearance, and he became a leading figure in Neoclassical history painting. He had a very good patronage for portraiture in London, including King George. Around 1770 he inherited a fortune, and slowly gave up painting, ceasing altogether by 1782. He remained an influential figure in the London art world until about 1790 when he married a very wealthy widow and became an MP, though occasionally he submitted pictures to the Royal Academy of which he had been a member but subsequently retired. He died in 1811, leaving a vast fortune.