Completed Dress and Textiles, Maritime Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C, Portraits: British 19th C 37 Can you help to identify this naval lieutenant?

Portrait of a Naval Lieutenant, c.1795
Topic: Subject or sitter

This half-length portrait shows an unidentified sitter in lieutenant's full dress uniform, 1787–1812, with a dress sword under his right arm, blade upwards and with a red sword belt wrapped around its sheath.

The intriguing aspect is the disproportion of the sitter's head to his body, and the unusual way the sword is included to show its full length in what is only a half-length portrait, also emphasising the apparent mismatch of body scale. Livesay was a competent painter and this is a good example of his work but I wonder if it is also one that shows a man who had some form of achondroplasia (bone growth disorder). If this is the case, it is surprising his identity is so far unknown. It would be unusual in a naval officer, given that being (literally) an 'able seaman' in terms of physical capacities was prerequisite to getting a commission, both practically and to command the respect of those under their command. However, while the effects of the condition can be more or less limiting, they are not axiomatically 'disabling'. Nonetheless – for a naval officer – it is the sort of thing likely to have been noted somewhere, probably in anecdotal or perhaps biographical sources rather than official record.

The individual concerned is also likely to have been (as he looks) a pretty strong character to have made whatever mark he did: lieutenant is the basic commissioned rank, but not every 'mid' even made it that far. I have not seen such a mention, but it would be interesting if anyone had.

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

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The addition of Richard Livesay's life dates to Art UK is a productive outcome of this discussion about the identity of the sitter, which remains unknown.

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.


I raised this one some years ago and am glad to see it has now surfaced as a public discussion: put simply we are looking for a man who, in modern PC euphemism, was a 'small person' but must have been a pretty effective character, so it would be very interesting to identify him.

Roderick Macleod,

I don't suppose this might be anamorphosic, designed to be hung high and viewed from below? (my printer is U/S, so I can't test this).

Cliff Thornton,

The only naval officer I have encountered who is referred to as being rather short in stature is the Spanish Admiral Gravina (1756-1806), who commanded the Principe de Asturias at Trafalgar. He fled the battle before he could be captured. But no portraits of him show any sign of dwarfism. Could the portrait be a caricature of the Admiral?

The information supplied above is accurate: it is a British sitter from the uniform shown and it is not 'optically distorted', if only because that would also have to apply to the background - which is not so.

The only other curiosities are: first, that the man is certainly standing and his coat is very tightly closed over on a single button, apparently over a rather pot-bellied abdomen. This can be a tendency in achondroplasia, and though not otherwise strongly marked here is one of the reasons for the hypothesis.

Second, the sword: this may not be his own but, perhaps, someone else's (e.g. one surrendered to him). Official naval officer sword patterns only begin in 1805 (as I recall) although before that they tended to be very similar: that is, straight, flat cutting and thrusting blades, with flat gilt-metal (often brass) guards into which the Admiralty anchor was often cut as a fretwork pattern. Sheaths were generally black leather with matching strapwork and gilt metal mounts (brass tended to be used where possible in sea equipment to avoid corrosion).

The weapon shown here is much more like a 'land' or even 'land dress' weapon, with a round section steel or silvered guard and a round white metal sheath suggesting the blade might be a triangular-section small-sword, more for stabbing than cutting. The
'strapwork' is also clearly intended as red webbing -not leather- with a steel or silvered buckle.

I have never seen anything similar in any other naval portrait. If the picture predates 1805 it could just mean the sitter had a very unusual taste in swords, since he wasn't contravening any rule I'm aware of (non-expertly as regards edged weapons). Otherwise, either pre- or post-1805 there has to be some other explanation. Surrender by someone in a red uniform, possibly an army or foreign 'Marine' equivalent - French, Spanish Dutch being the obvious suspects- is a possibility, even if wrong.

F Wittler,

I wonder if the background would yield more information. The ship on the right appears to have her sails reversed, and there seems to be a flag near the top of the ?mizzen mast nearest the viewer. On the left there is an exotic red-flowered shrub (and possibly even a flower tucked into the left of his hat). Unless it's simply a mend in the canvas, there may also be a vertical structure coming out of the shrub and rising to near the sword. Could he just possibly be involved in one of the maritime exploration trips - and even, perhaps, be depicted with a prize that he was involved in taking and/or took temporary command of? Far-fetched, perhaps, but surely the background is intentional - and meaningful to the sitter in having his portrait commissioned.

The prize/ action theory may be the more likely given the appearance of gunsmoke in the background: another may be that its posthumous since what is actually on the left looks like a gothic ruin or monument with autumnal foliage (oak leaves?), though it will need direct sight to get further. Unfortunately this is one of the NMM pictures of which the only currently available image is the Art UK one.

Jacinto Regalado,

It appears from two other Livesay portraits on Art UK that he had a problem with proportions. In the first one below, the arm is too small and thin, and in the second one, the hand is too small and the head is relatively small for the body:

He seems to have been rather better at portraying full-length figures, again based on Art UK works.

S. Elin Jones,

Is there any information available with regards to it’s provenance please?

Kieran Owens,

Although the birth and death dates for Richard Livesay are widely recognised (by NPG and others) as being 1750 and 1826 respectively, both are incorrectly recorded as 1753 and c.1823 on each of his seven entries on ArtUK.

By way of confirmation that he died on Tuesday 28th November 1826, the following is a selection of published newspaper notices announcing his demise:

The Hampshire Telegraph, Monday 4th December - (In the Portsmouth news column) - "Died, on Tuesday , Mr. Livesay, sen., artist, of this town." (Tuesday was the 28th November).

The Hampshire Chronicle, Monday 4th December 1826 - "Died, at the house of his nephew, at Southsea, aged 76, Mr. Richard Livesay, an artist of considerable talent."

Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, Thursday 7th December 1826 - "(Died) At Portsmouth, aged 76, Mr. Livesay, artist, late of Bath."

Southsea is three miles due south of Portsmouth.

By way of simple subtraction, 1750 is his birth year.

Additionally, I do not believe that Livesay had a problem with proportions, rather that he used the distortions evident is several of his works to exaggerate some comical aspect of the sitter's character, or to create one for the artist's personal reasons. Whether this was an affectionate or malicious intention remains a mystery, but there are several extant works that amply display his ability to deliver a perfectly well-proportioned portrait when necessary.

It is worth noting that his posthumous etchings and engravings of the works of Hogarth show that he was well capable of understanding the power of the distorted line to deflate a subject's character. The same applies to his Windsor portraits of Eton school-boys and others, who are treated with what appears to be a relished mirth.

By way of contextualising Livesay's connection to naval subjects, attached is his entry from the DNB (albeit also with the incorrectly estimated death date).

Whaley Turco,

My Immediate and only reaction to this is someone is having a poke at someone. Maybe Nappy Maybe a naval officer. I say that because in the world that figure exists everything relates to everything else.

Mark Wilson,

There's some provenance in the NMM's collection website linked to above: "When acquired in 1944 the portrait was said to be of Lieutenant William Bligh, of 'Bounty' fame: this has no basis in terms of likeness". I doubt much more could be discovered.

Livesay can be variable, even judging by his ArtUK works. But I do wonder if there is a tendency to assign portraits of naval officers to him because of his association with the Royal Naval College and that some of the more basic examples might not be by him. In addition, having taught art to all those naval officers, many must have taken stylistic traits from him and show those in pictures they produce, so that they resemble (not very good) Livesays.

This is clearly one of his better efforts and the face in particular is very sympathetic. At first I wondered if the rest of the picture was done by someone else, which accounted for the apparent distortion, but the quality of painting and the level of detail make that unlikely. For the same reasons deliberate distortion for comic purposes would normally be done much more sketchily.

Osmund Bullock,

Well spotted, Kieran. There's no need for any maths, though: Livesay was born on 8th December 1750. This is given in the current DNB - yours, I think, is the first (1893) edition - and also on the RA website. The source for the date is presumably the manuscript volume of student admissions that was discovered in the Academy's vaults in 1930, and published by the Walpole Society in 1962. On his entry to the RA Schools in March 1774, Livesay's age was given as 23 on the 8th Dec preceding. See attached 1.

I am puzzled by your assessment of Livesay's Eton Montem portraits (if that's what you're referring to) as treating the sitters with "a relished mirth". Any examples? The few I can find, and what I can see of the unfinished Montem parade group at very low-res, seem to be pretty straightforward and respectful - even the salt-bearers in their rather bizarre costumes seem to be portrayed without any exaggerated line or other hint of mockery. See attached 2 & 3.

When practical I will try and see the original painting, mainly for the background. As has already been noted the ship's sails are apparently aback, which is certainly odd and might support a 'posthumous' theory if it is a monument on the left. The pennant at the maintp will not help but there may be a bit more from the ensign, which is too tightly cropped at right to identify (i.e. is it British or perhaps that of a foreign prize with which the sitter might have been associated?).

The attached -entirely 'in proportion' - group by Livesay may also be of interest since not yet on Art UK: it was acquired by bequest/ family presentation after the NMM oils were added and is one of many recent accessions (to various collections I think) yet to be oncluded in general updating:

These sitters' link with Wickham, Hants, is typical for naval families in places near Portsmouth: our ongoing artist-puzzle pair of Captain and Mrs Justinian Nutt had a Wickham link and I suspect the churchyard will be full of those who came to anchor there, though none are yet on the NMM Maritime Memorials web pages.

Interesting also to note, in Osmund's attachment, that Livesay was an RA classmate with the very good miniaturist Samuel Shelley: here's a naval example by him - for sitter information click 'Edward Riou' to right, this being an example where its being stripped out of the 'object description'.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think too much is being read into what may have been a technical problem. I very much doubt Livesay was deliberately mocking the sitters for portraits for which he was being paid. He could hardly afford to alienate his clients--not even Lawrence could.

Kieran Owens,

From a culture that gave the world Hogarth, Gillray, The Goons, Monty Python, Spitting Image, Private Eye, Scarfe and Steadman etc., the sensibilities of the specifically English character are more than robustly developed to cope with what Conrad Shawcross recently referred to as "loyal descent". There is a gulf of difference between affectionate mirth and destructive mockery, and all of that difference depends on intent. The outfits in Livesay's Montem portraits of young polemen such as Wryly Birch etc are significantly more ordinary than the fancy-dress of the salt-bearers, which, to mind eye, are rendered by Livesay with an endearing sense of respectful fun, as in the attached images of George Montagu and Joseph Hucks. Also, as Livesay held a steady job at the Naval Academy (at an admittedly modest £100 per annum) perhaps he could afford to take a jovial risk or two with colleagues who, like most lampooned celebrities, actually rather enjoy the attention.

Jacinto Regalado,

Is it possible that, in some cases, Livesay only did the head and left the rest to be done by students?

Kieran Owens,

Another example of an oversized head appearing in a work associated with Livesay can be seen in the attached engraving, published in March 1785, after his painting of the balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard:

Having made his first successful balloon flight in Paris on the 2nd March 1784, Blanchard moved to London in the following August. He subsequently made three flights, the second and third taking off with an American, Dr John Jeffries. The third flight, on the 7th January 1785, again with Jeffries, was the first flight over the English Channel. The pair ascended from Dover Castle and, after about 2½ hours, landed at Guînes, near Pas-de-Calais, in France. A granite column marks the landing spot to this day:înes

Osmund Bullock,

I think you must mean 'loyal dissent' rather than 'descent', Kieran - or perhaps it's a rather clever ballooning joke...?

I still see no signs of even benevolent mirth, lampooning, exaggerated comical aspects of character, or distorted line in order to deflate (your words, not mine) in any of the Montem portraits, I'm afraid...nor indeed in the Blanchard one or in ours. Our sitter's face (and that of Blanchard) seems to be portrayed in a straightforward and sympathetic light - as does the one shown by Andrew (also in my composite of images above), with its similar but lesser disproportion. Surely someone trying to make some sort of point, however affectionate, would have played gently with the face rather than the body size? But I suspect you and I will never see eye-to-eye on this one!

Osmund Bullock,

I completely agree that the distortion must be deliberate, not incompetent. I am leaning towards the view that the phenomenon was a sort of caricature, yes, but not with any critical intent whatever, however mild. I think it was an experiment - a solution to the challenge of painting on a small or very small canvas a good and characterful face while still including enough of the clothes and/or background to tell us a bit about the sitter. Having found a good market in small-scale oil portraits, perhaps Livesay became dissatisfied with the face detail and prominence that could be managed in one, and for a while played around (sitter permitting) with the proportions to try and get round it. Our portrait is just 16 inches high (and the Eton Montem sketches only 9") - the attached shows them in correct proportionate size to the 40 x 50 inch Captain Grindall & family linked to by Pieter.

1 attachment
Osmund Bullock,

And re 'sitter permitting', I'm not sure that Roderick Macleod's suggestion at the top is necessarily so wide of the mark. If you had commissioned a small portrait from Livesay, but knew it was likely to be hung high and were worried that your face would be lost, might not Livesay in an experimental mood have suggested bumping up the head size? I can imagine him saying, "Don't worry - it won't look nearly as odd when it's up near the cornice".

Kieran Owens,

Dissent was indeed my intended usage. As for Livesay's own intent, we will, in all likelihood, never know, but you are most probably correct.

I had either forgotten (or not noticed) that Livesay was also the engraver of the illustrations by Hogarth and Samuel Scott to their companion Forrest's humorous 'Five Days Peregrination' in Kent of 1732 (pub. 1782): here Hogarth is the figure crawling across the makeshift gangplank of two oars that they used to board the boat taking them across the Medway from the Isle of Grain to Sheerness:

Jacinto Regalado,

Livesay would have had to be eccentric indeed, not to say disturbed, to have practiced such distortion as any sort of mirth and thus potentially jeopardize his business. What Osmund suggests is rather more plausible, albeit still speculative.

Kieran Owens,

You and Osmund are most probably correct, Jacinto, though Livesay's position as drawing tutor to the children of the King, and his proximity to some of the most powerful families in the land through his paintings of their sons at Eton, might have afforded him a certain immunity from any negative critical reaction that might otherwise have jepordized his livelihood. One way or the other it will probably be impossible to know, so let us all forget my suggestion and move on to finding more factual evidence as to the nature of this portrait.

Pieter, in terms of naval uniform history, is there anything at all distinctive about the sitter's red sword hanger/belt, or his hat and its black cockade or what appears to be some sort of ruby-red jewel decoration hanging from it?

The uniform is standard: hats only figure in regulations from 1795 however, so whether there are any clues as to pre- or post- that date is something I'd have to look up.

The sword is generally untypical of Royal Naval officer weapons, even before there was an official RN pattern from 1805, and none ever had red strapwork, jewelled or otherwise. Put anotherway, who did among Britain's European enemies (Dutch, French, Spanish) either as naval or 'marine' or even army? It looks like a small-sword in a metal sheath so whether fighting or more 'dress' it's an officer's weapon.

Thanks Marion: could you post a left-side detail starting about a third of the way up the present one to above the sword point?

I agree about the right side: cloud not smoke and the sails may not be aback, its just ambiguously done. The ensign looks red and on a staff, which is odd since at this stage one would expect it on the gaff of the mizzen and there isn't one, nor is it entirely clear if the ship is a two or three-decker: in short, more a generalized suggestion of a large and probaby British ship.

Martin Hopkinson,

It does not seem to be recorded in the online Getty Provenance Index

This discussion, “Can you help to identify this naval lieutenant?”, has attracted 33 responses in May and June this year. Although it is tagged to four different subject groups, it is very much a Maritime Subject. Pieter, you are clearly the right person to lead this discussion. Do you feel that there remains a possibility of answering the discussion question? If not, perhaps the discussion could be closed?

There is one definite outcome on which Art UK could act now independently of this discussion. As posted by Kieran on 23 May and Osmund on 24 May, Livesay’s life dates are, without doubt, 1750-1826.

Richard Livesay's life dates have been added to Art UK, and the other collections that hold works by him have been updated with the sources and a link to this discussion.

Thanks for the prompt Jacob. Having started this hare running because the picture is a longstanding NMM puzzle as regards sitter, nothing further has emerged, including from my asking one or two current naval specialists who might have encountered a 'vertically challenged' officer for other reasons. There is still no image of the painting on the NMM web pages (it is one of those that only Art UK has taken electronic images of, in the absence of existing NMM ones) but my February 2018 update of the entry there covers the matter as far as we can until -if ever- something new turns up. That being so, my thanks too for all the comments made but I agree the discussion could close.