Completed Continental European before 1800, Maritime Subjects, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C, Portraits: British 18th C 31 If not Christopher Columbus by Cornelis Ketel, who are the sitter and artist?

Topic: Subject or sitter

Views on the sitter and artist of this portrait would be welcome. It appears not to be Columbus or painted by Cornelis Ketel, who died in 1616.

The navigator, geographer or cartographer shown is apparently of the later 17th or early 18th C, with a large atlas of line-engraved printed charts in front of him. The globe to which he points also appears to be of printed gores, of similar date and sophistication. Whether these are Dutch or English is hard to say.

My instinct is that the dress and general appearance suggests an English sitter. He is more round-faced and cheerful looking than the portrait of William Dampier by Thomas Murray (c.1697–1698) in the National Portrait Gallery, although he wears his hair long and is probably not too far away in terms of date.

The coat, perhaps silk brocade, suggests relatively wealthy indoor attire, though the poor condition of the canvas makes the whole thing hard to assess.

Warrington Museum & Art Gallery comments:

The painting was donated to the gallery in December 1872 by ‘Mr Bankes Mercer’ (or possibly ‘Mr Bankes, a Mercer’ - the entry is unclear). The register entry reads as follows:

‘Portrait said to be of Christopher Columbus which was formerly in the possession of G. White the engraver.’ The entry originally said it was ‘engraved by’ G. White. This has been crossed out.

According to a note in our catalogue there was previously a note on the reverse reading ‘Christopher Columbus formerly in the Collection of George Whileb (White?) Engraver [...]’ and it was ‘signed on the back’. We don't know whether the signature was of the artist or the former owner. The message is now lost following the relining of the canvas and no record appears to have been made.

We have been unable to ascertain when the painting was attributed to Ketel, other than it appears to have been made prior to 2006.

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

Completed, Outcome

Jade Audrey King,

The artist of this painting has been changed to 'British School' and the painting title changed to 'Portrait of a Late Seventeenth-Century Navigator (formerly said to be Christopher Columbus, 1451–1506)'.

These amends will appear on the Your Paintings website by the end of July 2015. Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.

If any contributors have new information about this painting, we encourage them to propose a new discussion by following the Art Detective link on the Your Paintings page:


Tim Williams,

A good cleaning should reveal the naval scene in the background - another clue to the identity of the sitter. As this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, would the collection be able to take some high res images - especially of the globe, chart and ship?

Martin Hopkinson,

I can confirm that this is certainly not the same sitter as the painting possibly by the early sixteenth century artist Florentine artist Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio of Columbus in the Museo Navale in Genova, or by Sebastiano del Piombo, which was engraved by Paolo Mercuri in 1843. The fact that it was originally in the collection of an engraver might well mean that this engraver may have executed an engraving after this picture. George White [c. 1684-1732] is well represented in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. This is early for the survival of a sale catalogue, but it would be worth checking Frits Lugt for the existence of one of White's collection
David Alexander might know if White engraved a portrait after this painting

Martin Hopkinson,

The British Museum has an even larger collection of White's mezzotints. Some of his portrait prints were of 'sitters' with non British surnames.

Martin Hopkinson,

There is no image of a mezzotint by White on the NPG's or BM's collection databases which relates to this portrait

Cliff Thornton,

I suspect that the donor was Mr John Bankes Mercer an auctioneer from Manchester. The London Gazette in 1877 described his occupation as "auctioneer, valuer, beerhouse keeper, and dealer in articles of virtu". The family seems to have had some connection with Warrington as his wife was buried there in 1881.

Many thanks for taking the time to look into the identity of the donor, Cliff Thornton. The aforesaid auctioneer Mr John Bankes Mercer certainly seems the most likely candidate to be the donor listed in our register for this painting.

The 1871 census for Lancashire shows a record for a John B Mercer, 25 years of age. He is listed as an auctioneer born in Rostherne, Cheshire in 1846. He is listed as resident in Chorlton-on-Medlock (now inner city Manchester) with his wife Emma and son Henry E Mercer.

We asked our colleague in the Local Studies Library at Warrington if he had any further information on a Mr Bankes Mercer active circa 1872.

A John Banks Mercer (with no e) was witness at the marriage of a Mary Grace Mercer at St. Mary’s Church in Great Sankey near Warrington. The Mercer family of Penketh also appear frequently in the registers of Great Sankey.

The librarian also alerted us to the record of John Bankes Mercer’s grave at Warrington Cemetery, although sadly there is no date. The headstone lists John's wife (Emma) who died in 1881 and their daughter (also Emma) who died the same year aged 5 months. There is a further daughter (Rose) on the headstone, who died in 1891 aged 17.

(Thanks to local studies librarian P. Jeffs for this information)

We have added this research to the Warrington Museum & Art Gallery catalogue for future reference.

Patty Macsisak,

You may find this article helpful in researching the antecedents of this painting...

Patty Macsisak,

For your reference, a 1685 reprint of a 1656 map of the Dutch North American colonies...

Patty Macsisak,

Warrington, there seems to be a figure of a man with a Van Dyke beard in the upper right corner. His forearm is extended and he is pointing to something. Is this figure part of a scene that you can describe further?

Tim Williams,

Patty, you are seeing things in the clouds! I can see exactly what you mean though, but it almost certainly a cloud formation.

Frustratingly I can't see anything in the charts, though there was definitely something there of importance. It seems that the picture has been over-cleaned at some point, then allowed to get dirty again, and then had a partial surface clean. The original cleaning has removed the hull of the ship almost completely and probably the important details from the globe and charts.

Dear Patty Macsisak,

Sorry to say but I concur with Tim Williams in that this appears to be a cloud formation

Dear Tim Williams,

I concur regarding the over-cleaning. We have no records regarding the cleaning of the painting but it's highly likely that the partial cleaning of the canvas was carried out at the museum during the 1960s or 1970s when onsite demonstrations of conservation/restoration techniques were apparently common.

Patty Macsisak,

Thanks, Warrington & Mr. Williams...made an appt. with the optometrist.

Patty Macsisak,

Can we agree that the globe shows the eastern outline of the Americas? that the chart is in English (e.g., the word Bay is clear)?

I find this Dutch map of Manatus (ca. 1649) . The outline of the bay at the top of the map is similar to the bay in the chart. However, I find no word in the Dutch map or legend (or modern maps of NJ/NY) which correlate to "Bay B--L" in the chart.,_New_Netherland#/media/File:Manatvs_gelegen_op_de_Noot_Riuier.jpg

Thanks for the photos. I can't tell what coastlines the atlas and globe show from them but they are at earliest late-17th and perhaps more likely early 18th-century, say c.1680-1720-ish. The ship is a curiosity in that it appears to be single-masted, have an inner and outer jib to a bowsprit/jibboom, a square topsail and what looks like a gaff main (fore-and-aft rig) which would normally have a boom below but in this case looks like a loose-footed gaff-sail with only the clew (outer lower end) sheeted down astern so the bottom forms an arc - a feature which at present foxes me. There's nothing remotely 'Columbian' in it and, the loose foot of the mainsail apart, it looks more like a cutter rig of the later 18th-century, or at best an earlier gaff-rigged yacht in which one would not expect the double headsails and long bowsprit. The flag looks like a light (yellowish) upper quadrant with perhaps the other three-quarters dark; that's the proportion of British ensign, but not recognizably as far as colours are concerned and I've never seen even a degraded one that has decayed that way, unless one is just looking at ground layers.

Patty Macsisak,

Mr. van der Merwe, thank you for the opportunity learn something about the ship pictured. I am curious which, if any, of the images below best fit your description. Are these vessels suitable for transAtlantic voyages?

The following article describes the first yacht to arrive in Britain in May, 1660 and includes a painting of the vessel.

I read that this vessel evolved from Dutch herring-yachts and yachts

I found another vessel that falls within the 1680-1720 time period. "The Board of Customs in 1698 was given the power to set up two new protection services: the revenue cutters and the riding officers. Cutters were an innovative form of fast sailing vessel recently developed by the Dutch: single-masted, fore-and-aft gaff-rigged vessels, capable of more sophisticated and complex sailing manoeuvres than any other craft. The revenue cutters - known briefly at first as ‘sloops’, then ‘cutters’ and finally as ‘cruisers’ - were stationed in 21 ports round the coast of England and Wales, with one at each port."

Tim Williams,

I've been trying to read that text you spotted Patty - I'm not sure the first letter is a 'B' but I concur with the rest:

'*AY B** L'

I'm getting 'L' for the first letter (especially when compared to the 'B' on the opposite page), but it's just not clear enough to get a decent reading. Could someone at Warrington see if they can transcribe it better with the naked eye?

The 'Mary' was obviously a royal yacht used in British/ North Sea waters, and much more decorated than the one shown, of which the rig is similar to both the other examples shown in profile on the ship history web pages (copied here) and yachts

Only the first of these, the herring yacht, has a loose-footed gaff, whereas the other has a full cutter rig including the long bowsprit and the same rather long and rakish, as opposed to tubby, hull lines of that (apparently) shown on the canvas: so what's shown there seems a bit of a hybrid allowing it is not very clear. Such vessels could make long passages, especially when accompanying fleets, but if the sitter shown was an explorer/ cartographer one would expect him -at least by about 1700-plus- to be using such a craft from somewhere closer than a very distant trans-oceanic point of departure (e.g. along the American or an East Indian coast from some point there rather than from Britain). Perhaps the best chance of getting further would be to identify the coastlines from atlas comparisons, though it may not be possible from the photos to hand. A conservation view on whether the image could reasonably be rescued from it current half-cleaned state would be of interest, which might help more on details and date. The matter is really only worth pursuing further if likely to be worthwhile in the longer term. At the moment the best we are likely to be able to do is give it a better provisional description -though it would also help if someone more verse on the sitter's dress etc could comment on that, which should also help give a better date.

One further random thought comes to mind. If it is a yacht in the background, and perhaps with a degraded British flag of some sort, then the man who used them extensively for surveying was Captain Greenvile Collins (c. 1643-94)

for the survey work done from 1681 from which he published his celebrated series of British and Scottish charts called 'Britain's Coasting Pilot' -and intended to do Ireland, which was forestalled by his death. He had much previous experience working -mainly as a Royal Navy master-in the Mediterranean and ended up as a captain in the royal yachts 'Mary ' and 'Fubbs', (though the one shown in the picture is apparently a working vessel, not a ceremonial one). Is it, for example, Britain/Europe to which the sitter is pointing on the globe, and can the page on the atlas be identified with one of his large-scale British charts or some particular area (which would required it to be a single chart tipped in at the spine as a double-page spread, from their general format). This is flying a kite for shooting down, since there appears to be no known portrait of Collins and if the dress of the sitter is certainly later, then it isn't him. That said, turning back to the reported proveance why would quite a well-known early 18th-century engraver engraver like George White own such a portrait, since it is unlikely he would have believed a man wearing very near-contemporary dress to his own and surrounded by items with which he himself would have been familiar (the globe and model) to be 'Christopher Columbus'? Collins was a pioneer in British marine cartography and his work celebrated at the time - going through many editions- and White may have owned the canvas with a view to engraving but never did it for reasons unknown, though 'uncommercial' might be one.

Patty Macsisak,

The charts in the painting are published in an atlas. Which English language atlases were published in the period?

The man who possessed such expensive items as an atlas, globe and even, a heavy brocade banyan (which I suggest is velvet brocade) would either be independently wealthy or handsomely supported by a wealthy patron. In either case, "It was fashionable for men of an intellectual or philosophical bent to have their portraits painted while wearing banyans. Benjamin Rush wrote: 'Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so generally known, that we find studious men are always painted in gowns, when they are seated in their libraries.'"

Here are examples of 18th century banyans and paintings of men in banyans. It is interesting that most are pictured in a loose fashion, while our sitter is closely wrapped, perhaps indicating a cold, Northerly setting.

Mr. van der Merwe, I noticed the following comment in the HWY Mary article: "Mary was then used for transporting diplomats and civil servants and was used regularly for journeys across the Irish Sea between Dublin and Holyhead." Are you aware of any practice for providing vessels like this for the use of diplomats or civil servants in English colonies?

Sarah Krippner,

I read Not BAY but BAR BARI or BAR BAERI (A and E joined) could be BAY Turns out to even resemble the coast line of Italy at BERI (google maps)

Collins's charts were published individually as produced and on completion made up, as I recall, in atlas form. This was also (I think) the first British-made printed collection after Anthony Ashley's famous 'Mariners Mirror' published in 1588 in which the charts were not by Ashley but re-engraved versions of Lucas Waghenaer's Dutch ' Spiegel der Zeevaart' or 'mirror of seafaring' - and hence also the early English term of 'waggoner' for 'sea atlas'.

I think it is likely the Warrington sitter is a professional seaman rather than simply a gentleman scholar given he looks a plain, practical man and it is not a very sophisticated portrait in the manner of painting. That being so the various attributes are likely to be the tools of his trade. The area of the globe at which he points may have specific significance, as may the atlas (and certainly so if of his own making): the ship may also be specific to him, rather than a general 'prop'. The gown also indicates some social status, but also probably based on his professional position rather than just social; Collins was a successful naval man based on his technical skills, though not a wealthy one (he had ten children and his widow received official financial support when he died) but he could well have been painted this way - if he ever was. If he owned such dress, it would have been his 'best' but one also did not have to own clothes to be painted in them: they could be hired or even artist's props depending on how you wanted yourself shown.

Royal yachts were used for diplomatic transport with the near Continent: they were not attached to distant stations, and such stations did not exist around 1700 anyway. Even the Mediterranean fleet generally came home in winter. The vessel shown also does not look like a royal yacht but a more simple working vessel.

Unless/until someone can be very much more exact on the cartography and/or the dress (for dating purposes) I doubt that further general comparisons will do more than lengthen this exchange.

Unless these emerge in short order my suggestion to Warrington is that they consider re-titling the work as 'Portrait of a late-17th-century navigator', (perhaps adding 'formerly said to be Columbus'): also, I would suggest, as 'British school' in terms of artist rather than Ketel.

I think we have gone as far as practical on this at present. My recommendation is above.

I hope Warrington will consider new conservation on this canvas: individual navigator portraits of the period, with related equipment, are not common and the process might produce more details towards an identification, as well as something worth exhibiting again.

A brief PS on yachts is that they did accompany seasonal squadrons to the Mediterranean at this period: there was, for example, one with Shovell's fleet in 1707 when his flagship 'Association', plus three others, were lost on the Isles of Scilly while returning home for the winter. I have no idea if any were used in cartography there, by Collins or anyone else, but the model and 'Med' coastlines in globe and/or atlas are not mutually incompatible.

Having now taken further time to look through our records again we are still at a loss to identify where the attribution to Cornelis Ketel originated. Certainly we can find no justification for the attribution based on an examination of the Ketel's work and as such we are adopting Pieter van der Merwe's suggestion that the attribution be changed to 'British School' rather than Ketel. We will be altering our own catalogue records accordingly.

In terms of trhe sitter, while we concur that the identity of the sitter is almost certainly not Christopher Columbus we would want to preserve an element of this erroneous identification in the title as it represents one of the few pieces of information we have about the painting. As a result we are requesting that the PCF re-title the painting as 'Portrait of a Late 17th-Century Navigator (formerly said to be Christopher Columbus, 1451–1506)'. We will be altering our own catalogue records accordingly.

We have noted contributors' comments regarding the condition of the painting which, as previously explained, appears to be the result of the painting having been partially cleaned as part of a demonstration of restoration techniques in the 1970s. Warrington Museum & Art Gallery only have limited resources to devote to conservation but we have noted the comments above which may be useful in scheduling targeted conservation work in the future.

We would like to thank the PCF/Art Detective and Pieter van der Merwe for opening up this discussion and Tim Williams, Martin Hopkinson, Cliff Thornton, Patty Macsisak and Sarah Krippner for their contributions. Selected information from this thread will be added to our catalogue record and a print out of the complete thread will be added to our object history file for the painting for future reference.

Many thanks.