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Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Admiral Thomas Graves: the man who lost America

23 June 2016

We are getting ready for Masterpiece London, which opens with the preview next Wednesday. One of our highlights is an important portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. The portrait depicts Admiral Thomas Graves, who, in the wake of the British surrender at Yorktown, was accused of having lost the American Revolutionary War. Graves commanded the British fleet at the Battle of Chesapeake, when a French force, under Admiral de Grasse, was allowed to establish a strong position in the capes off the Virginia coast, effectively preventing the relief of Lord Cornwallis then besieged at Yorktown. Following Cornwallis’s surrender to General George Washington the land war in America was over. Graves was criticised by his subordinates, including the second-in-command Samuel Hood, for missed opportunities and the incompetent way he handled the battle. Graves, by losing the Battle of Chesapeake, effectively lost Britain America.

This impressive portrait was painted by Gainsborough as part of a campaign by Graves to resuscitate his reputation. Its execution was reported in the contemporary press, where Graves was described as ‘an officer of the first professional merit and ability’. Gainsborough included the finished portrait in the exhibition he held in his London studio, Schomberg House, in 1786. Gainsborough used a vocabulary of portraiture learnt from Van Dyck, including billowing red drapery and rapidly painted costume – including the gloved hand and linen cuff, which are described in a few, thickly handled brushstrokes - to present Graves in the grand manner. As a late portrait, painted only a couple of years before the artist’s death, this splendid portrait of Thomas Graves is a rare and important work. 

Masterpiece London

The Royal Hospital Chelsea · Stand D18
Thursday 30 June 11:00 – 21:00
Friday 1 July 11:00 – 21:00
Saturday 2 July 11:00 – 18:00
Sunday 3 July 11:00 – 18:00
Monday 4 to Wednesday 6 July 11:00 – 21:00