Upcoming Events

Naval Gazing: Portraiture and the Royal Navy

Research Seminar – Katherine Gazzard, Sara Caputo

  • 19 June 2024
  • 5:00 – 7:00 pm
  • This talk is part of a series entitled 'Out to Sea', which will focus on the influence of oceans and their coasts, in relation to Britain and its global empire, on visual and architectural imagination and production.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

Portrait of a man in eighteenth-century Naval uniform with hand folded in to waistcoat. Behind him is a classical colonnade in the near-distance, and a large ship in the middle-distance. Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of naval officer George Edgcumbe (1749, National Maritime Museum) can be split into two zones: a maritime zone on the left, containing the young captain’s warship afloat in Plymouth Sound; and an architectural zone on the right, where ivy-covered columns evoke his Cornish country estate. Edgcumbe’s body straddles the divide, symbolising his ability to move between the worlds of naval service and aristocratic society. He wears the Royal Navy’s first-ever official uniform, introduced only months before. Perched above his shoulder is an African long-tailed paradise whydah bird, a souvenir from his travels.

Positioning its sitter at the intersection of social, institutional, sartorial, local, national and global concerns, this portrait serves as an introduction to the complex currents that have shaped the representation of naval personnel in British art. To what extent can naval portraiture be understood as a distinctive genre? What were its conventions, and how did they emerge?

In answering these questions, this talk will chart a visual and conceptual journey from the beach to the boardroom. Naval portraiture emerged in the eighteenth century as a genre that looked “out to sea”, employing coastal settings to symbolise colonial expansion, maritime trade and even the transgression of social norms. Through public display and reproduction, many portraits became known outside of naval circles, sometimes assuming immense cultural or political significance. Yet, over time, the focus of naval portraiture turned inward. Displayed in mess rooms and Admiralty corridors, portraits legitimised particular manifestations of authority within the Royal Navy and visually reinforced the service’s institutional and bureaucratic structures. This journey through the history of “naval-gazing” invites us to reflect on how portraits can cross between private, public and institutional realms and what happens when they do.

Respondent: Sara Caputo, Senior Research Fellow and Director of Studies at Magdalene College, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

About the speakers

  • Katherine Gazzard is Curator of Art (Post-1800) at Royal Museums Greenwich. Through her research and curatorial work, she explores the interconnections between British art and the maritime world. She has previously taught art history and museum and gallery studies at the University of East Anglia, where she obtained her PhD in 2019. Her thesis explored the representation of naval officers in eighteenth-century British portraiture. She is the author of The Art of Naval Portraiture, published in March 2024.

  • Sara Caputo specialises in the social and cultural maritime history of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with particular focus on transnational migration, health and medicine, and mapping. Her first book, Foreign Jack Tars: The British Navy and Transnational Seafarers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. Her second book, titled Tracks on the Ocean: A History of Trailblazing, Maps and Maritime Travel, will appear with Profile Books and The University of Chicago Press in summer 2024. Sara has also published around ten articles in journals including Past & Present, The Historical Journal, Social History of Medicine and History of Science. She is currently writing a third monograph, a comparative and transnational history of naval medicine in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British, French and Spanish navies, including a perspective “from below”.