Completed London: Artists and Subjects, Maritime Subjects, Military History, Portraits: British 18th C 17 Can we establish if this is a portrait of Sir Peter Denis or Sir Basil Keith?

Captain Basil Keith (d.1777)
Topic: Subject or sitter

This portrait is one of five recorded versions/copies of which another which has been in New York since 1931 and currently heading for auction there was sold in London from the Marquess of Lansdowne's collection in 1930. That one has at latest an early 19th-century MS label on the back identifying the sitter as (later Admiral) Sir Peter Denis (1713-78) and was the basis for this one also being so-identified after it was bought at auction as an 'unknown captain' in 1935. In 1958 another version was found in private hands in Glasgow, also already identified as Denis though when Christies later sold it in 1967 they attributed it (wrongly) to William Hoare: the National Maritime Museum has a small file photo of that one showing it was in poor condition but equal quality to that here. Its current whereabouts are not in the NMM file.

At some point about 1965-68 the NMM also learnt of two more versions or copies, one in possession of Lord Crawford and the other with the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle but both these are identified as of Captain Sir Basil Keith (d. 1777) The presence of the latter at Alnwick was information supplied by the Scottish NPG after NMM sent them a spare copy photo of the Glasgow version sold by Christie's in 1967, and an apparently informal opinion also came back and was noted that 'Hutchinson' of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery thought the identification as Keith was likely to be right.

The present version appeared in the NMM 'Preliminary Catalogue' of oils of 1968 as Denis, but for reasons unclear (and apparently flimsy if the above was the sole evidence) had been reidentified as Keith by the time its 'Concise Catalogue' was published in 1988 - as it remains.

The size of the Crawford and Alnwick ('Keith') versions are not yet known: the other three, including this, are 30 x 25s.
All (presumably) also show the sitter, as here, in the 1767-74 captain's uniform: Denis would only have worn it to October 1770 when he was promoted to rear-admiral, Keith to 1774 when the uniform changed again.

Unfortunately I can find no other portraits of either man. The only circumstantial evidence in favour of Denis is that he was a more distinguished officer with the more varied career, including being one of Anson's 'Centurions' in the circumnavigation of 1739-44 when young the circumstantial point in favour of Keith (I have just been told while writing this) is that Dance is known to have painted his brother Sir Robert Murray Keith of which the Government Art Collection has a version (link below) though there are also reportedly others.

I don't know if Dance's sitter book is known though there are 'personal accounts' in the Northampton Record office.

Unless/until one has all the images, it is not possible to be sure which is also the 'prime' version, so that is not resolvable here, but it would be useful to have firmer evidence one way or another on the Denis/Keith identity if anyone can offer it.

[Alistair Brown then made Pieter aware of the c.1734 birth date for Keith on the Three Decks website]

[Pieter then added].

If it was c. 1734 that would have made him between c.33 and c.40 when wearing the 1767-74 captain's uniform shown and our sitter certainly looks older than that: Denis would have been 54 to 57 when in the same dress.

I see the Govt Art Collection in fact has two versions of Dance's portrait of Keith's elder brother, Robert, (1730-95) both also 30 x 25s, but possible 'family likeness' is not so striking as to be of help.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The new title is 'Portrait of a captain, probably Sir Peter Denis, c.1713-1778'. The revised entry on the Collection’s own site takes all the considerations raised in this discussion into account.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Martin Hopkinson,

Hutchinson is Robert Edward Hutchison, always known as Robin[ Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery 1953-82] , son of the portrait painter, Sir William Oliphant Hutchinson. He lived from 1922 to 2013

Thanks for clearing that minor puzzle up Martin. The Lansdowne version is coming up at Doyle's, New York, on 10 November. I'm told its been in the same family ownership since a US dealer sold it to them in 1931.

Jacinto Regalado,

This sitter looks older than 40 and much more likely to be in his fifties.

Martin Hopkinson,

The monument by Joseph Wilton of Keith of 1780 in St Jago de la Vega, Spanish Town , Jamaica was published by Lesley Lewis in The Burlington Magazine, 108, January, 1966 , pp.20-1 and 23
There should be a photograph of it in the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art
The British Art Journal, 5, 3, Winter 2004, pp.4-26 might lead to further publications on Wilton

Martin Hopkinson,

There is also Ingrid Roscoe et al., [large] A biographcal dictionary of sculptors in Britain 1660-1851, Yale University Press, 2009

Martin Hopkinson,

There is also Lewis' article in Commemorative Art, XXXII and XXXIV, 1965 and 1967 'English commemorative sculpture in Jamaica'

Yes, I had wondered if Keith's cited c. 1734 birth date is based on an age given on the Jamaica monument, but as yet haven't found a transcription or a readable image. That would be useful to discover.

Marcie Doran,

The website for ‘Jamaican Family Search’ has the transcription as item number 73 of its ‘monumental inscriptions’ in St. Catherine parish.

The entire text for that entry is as follows:



G. Marble Mont., richly sculptured (cenotaph) by J. Wilton, R. A.; Arms, 1 & 4, Arg. a chief paly or and gules, base and sinister embattled of the third. 2 & 3, Errm a fetter lock proper. On a chief azure, three mullets ; a crescent for difference. Crest, A fox trippt (?). Motto, "Candore decus."

(N. B. The House of Assembly on 11 Nov., 1777, voted three thousand guineas for this monument.)

BRIDGES says, "Keith, after a popular administration of less than two years, fell sick and died." The duration of his government is incorrectly stated. He opened a Session of the Legislature on the 8th Feb., 1774, and died 15th June, 1777, so that he must have presided more than three years and four months.”

Martin Hopkinson,

if this is Keith probably painted in Britain 1773 before he set off to take up his Governorship

Thanks Martin, so back to square one. I have posted a comment on his record on th Three Decks website (which anyway needs correcting as to his date of death (15 June, not November as it currentlly says -just a recording slip) but it may just be reasonable inference from his first recorded date of service as 5 October 1747. This apppears to come from the NMM Commissioned Sea Officers List - i.e. something dug out in the PRO long ago by the indefatigable Commander Pitcairn-Jones, but unlikely to have the source noted. If he entered, as most officers did, as a 'captain's servant' 13 would be about right. He passed the lieuetenant's examination in 1754 which would also be right: that is the usual six years sea time and notionally at 21, though it often varied. (Sometimes it was just through nepotistic influence, sometimes by exceptional competence as well: Nelson was a captain at 21 and the even better-connected Sir William Parker - Admiral Lord St Vincent's nephew and also much approved by Nelson - made it at 19).

Reverting briefly to Captain Basil Keith: his specific date of birth may be lost, as also seems to be the case for his parents' marriage (neither are on Ancestry as far as I can see). What does seem clear however, to justify the 'c.1734' birth date given on the Three Decks website, is that he was second son of his Scottish parents' three children.

The parents were the diplomatist Robert Keith of Craig (c. 1697-1774) and Margaret, second daughter of Sir William Cuninghame. The eldest child was General Sir Robert Murray Keith (1730-95), also later a diplomat. The one daughter and eventual heiress to the family lands was Anne Murray Keith, whose dates (according to ODNB) were 1736-1818. ODNB's entry on the father lists Basil as second child, between the two, though wrongly says that he died in 1770 rather than on 15 June 1777 as was really the case, and that he was Governor of Gibraltar rather than Jamaica, as also actually the case at the time of his death. (I have not yet fully checked if he had anything to do with Gibraltar but it doesn't look like it from his naval record.)

As already noted, if Basil was born in c.1734 and is also the subject of this portrait and the other versions of it, they would show him aged between about 33 and 40. That seems unlikely and it is even more unlikley that it shows him even younger, supposing he was in fact born after his sister in (say) 1737 or 1738.

I think based on age alone and the very old label (most likely early 19th century) on the Lansdowne version being sold in NY this week, the resonable conclusion has to to be that this is Peter Denis (b. 1713) rather than Basil Keith - or at least not the latter.

One other incidental fact that did emerge about Keith is that, on 4 February 1765, a dinner at his London house was the founding event of the 'Naval Club' - a dining club still in existence as 'The Naval Club of 1765'. I think that falls in the 'not many people know...'category, and I certainly didn't.

The ex-Lansdowne collection version of this portrait was sold yesterday by Doyle's, NY, (Old Masters and Silver sale, 10 Nov., lot 13) for $10,710, inc. buyer's premium: the estimate was $4K-$7K.

Andrew Shore,

In case anyone wasn't aware, the Paul Mellon Centre's photo archive is now online and searchable.

A search for Basil Keith yields three results: of another version of this painting (the Alnwick one, I think, with dimensions):

...and two of the monument by Wilton in Jamaica (which isn't a likeness):

Thanks Andrew: I wasn't aware of that and am glad to see the image. It explains how Keith's name was introduced into the mix but is probably a rather later addition of which the credibility is open to the same apparent age objections as already outlined

I think we can move to close this.

The ex-Lansdowne version sold in NY on 10 November bears an apparently early label identifying the sitter as Denis: the now unlocated Glasgow version was separately identified as Denis, though on what basis is unknown. The version at Alnwick bears a painted inscription, probably added at some point well after it was painted, identifying the sitter as Keith: Lord Crawford's version, also said to be of Keith, has not been sighted. There are no other known images of either man to resolve the matter simply on likeness.

The only other objective evidence to hand is the age of the sitter when wearing the 1767-74 captain's uniform. We do not know Keith's exact birth date other than that it appears to have been between 1731 (allowing a year after birth of his elder brother Robert in 1730) and before his sister Anne in 1736. The c.1734 date given on the Three Decks website appears to be based on the date he entered the Navy (5 October 1747) and when he became lieutenant in 1754: i.e. notionally at about 13 and 21 respectively. It is worth adding that, had he in fact been born after his sister Anne (e.g. 1737-8), he would not have been sent to sea at aged 10, though he could have been 'entered in the books' to do so, which was a common ploy to gain the requisite six years sea-time towards gaining a commission without actually serving it.

If Keith, all versions of the portrait would show him as a captain aged - at most - between about 33 to 40. If it is Denis (b.c.1713) they show him as 53 to 57.

The latter is far more likely and NMM's intention is to revert to favouring Denis - as was originally the case when its version was acquired as 'anon' in 1935 and subsequently identified from the Lansdowne one. The new title will be 'Portrait of a captain, probably Sir Peter Denis, c.1713-1778', with the revised entry taking all the considerations raised above into account.

Which of five known versions is 'prime' cannot be resolved here, other than to note that the NMM and Glasgow ones have been suggested in the past, probably mainly from detailing of the hair, which in others is more 'blocked in'.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this matter.