George Sanders, 1774 - 1846
Portrait of Admiral George Keith Elphinstone, GCB, 1st Viscount Keith 1746-1823
Admiral George Keith Elphinstone, Viscount Keith
oil on canvas
76.20 x 63.50 cm. (30 x 25 in.)


Marquis of Northampton

Lord Loch of Drylaw, Eden Hall, kelso, Sylvia Loch


Elphinstone, George Keith, Viscount Keith (1746–1823), naval officer and politician, was born on 7 January 1746 at Elphinstone Tower, Airth, near Stirling, the fourth son and seventh child of the eight children of Charles Elphinstone, tenth Lord Elphinstone (1711–1781), and Lady Clementina Fleming (1719–1799); she was the daughter and heir of the sixth earl of Wigtown and also heir to her uncle, George Keith, the last Earl Marischal. The eldest son joined the army; the second, Charles, also in the army, was killed on passage to join his regiment when the Prince George (90 guns) caught fire and sank in the Bay of Biscay in 1758; the third, William, after a short period in the Royal Navy transferred to the marine service of the East India Company of which he eventually became a director. On 4 November 1761 George Elphinstone joined the Royal Sovereign (100 guns) at Portsmouth but transferred on 1 January 1762 to the Gosport (44 guns), commanded by Captain John Jervis, later earl of St Vincent, whom he impressed. In her he saw action in September when the French were driven out of Newfoundland and Halifax, Nova Scotia, which they had briefly occupied; he returned home in her at the end of the year and in March 1763 transferred to the frigate Juno. Two months later he joined the frigate Lively, commanded by another Scot, the Hon. Keith Stewart, and served in the Mediterranean from July 1763 to January 1765.

After a period at home Elphinstone joined the frigate Emerald, commanded by his fellow countryman Charles Douglas, in August 1766, but left her at his own request in December to embark as third mate in his elder brother's East Indiaman, the Tryton. Their great-uncle the Earl Marischal is said to have lent them £2000 each for a voyage to China, thus laying the foundation of their financial independence. On his return home Elphinstone rejoined the Emerald at Leith in August 1768, serving mostly in northern waters until he moved in September 1769 to the frigate Stag, flagship of Commodore Sir John Lindsay. On passage to Madras, Elphinstone was promoted to acting lieutenant on 21 December 1769, a promotion which was confirmed on 28 June 1770. Taken ill, he was landed at Madras in October and returned home the following March. Two months later he joined the Trident (64 guns) as second lieutenant, sailing in August to the Mediterranean with the flag of the commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Denis. In April 1772 he was appointed first lieutenant, and on 18 September was promoted to commander with command of the sloop Scorpion, serving in the western Mediterranean for two years. In April 1774 he was deputed by Sir Peter Denis to conduct delicate negotiations with the dey of Algiers about his treatment of the British consul, and on their successful conclusion was sent home overland with Denis's dispatches reporting the outcome. After seven months in Scottish waters, during which he took part in his first parliamentary campaign standing unsuccessfully for Dunbartonshire in November 1774, Elphinstone transferred in March 1775 from the Scorpion to the Romney (50 guns) in the acting rank of captain which was confirmed on 11 May 1775. In the Romney Elphinstone escorted a troop convoy to Newfoundland and gave passage to Rear-Admiral Robert Duff, governor-designate of the colony. He returned home the following February and in March took command of the frigate Perseus (20 guns), sailing in July 1776 with a convoy to New York soon after the American Declaration of Independence, and capturing an American privateer on the way. Off New York he was actively employed in cruising against the enemy's privateers and blockade runners, capturing some twelve small vessels. At Antigua in February 1777 he transferred to the larger Pearl (32 guns) on the death of her captain, returning to the Perseus off Delaware in May. Her task of harassing the privateers and co-operating with the army ashore in North America continued for much of the next three years, broken by four months in the West Indies in early 1779, when she survived two hurricanes on the passage south, and was then employed cruising among the islands to frustrate French attempts against the sugar plantations. In November, off Charlestown harbour, Perseus captured the French Therèse, also 20 guns, in a brisk action in which Perseus suffered considerable damage to her rigging. In spring 1780 Elphinstone was put in charge of the landing of General George Clinton's army near Charlestown, with all the transport ships under his control; he then led the naval brigade at the capture of the town. Clinton wrote of Elphinstone that his ‘unremitted attention to us from his so ably and successfully conducting the transports … with the great benefit I have derived from his knowledge of the Inland Navigation of this part of the coast, merit my warmest thanks’ (Clinton to Germain, colonial secretary, 9 March 1780, London Gazette, 25 April 1780). After the capitulation of Charlestown (7 May), Elphinstone returned home with the dispatches of Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, the naval commander-in-chief. Elphinstone was immediately given command of the Warwick (50 guns) in home waters and on 14 February 1781, after an acrimonious contest against the Argyll interest, he was elected as whig member of parliament for Dunbartonshire, a seat which he held until 1790. Meanwhile on 5 January, cruising in the English Channel, he captured the Dutch Rotterdam of equal force without losing a man. In March, with a large convoy, he sailed again to North America where he embarked Midshipman Prince William Henry (the future William IV), who was anxious to see some action. In September, Elphinstone's squadron, after a long chase, captured the large French frigate Aigle (44 guns) and all but one of her convoy off Delaware (though the prince was ill and confined to his bunk). Elphinstone transferred to the frigate Carysfort in November 1782 and returned to England, himself in poor health.

For the next ten years Elphinstone was on half pay. He took his seat in the House of Commons but seldom spoke, and divided his time between London and his family estates in Scotland. He acted as unpaid treasurer and comptroller of the household to his former midshipman, Prince William, from 1785 to 1789, when the king objected to his further employment as he was politically in opposition to the government. He also acted as a secretary to the prince of Wales. On 10 April 1787 he married Jane, daughter and coheir of Colonel William Mercer of Aldie, Perthshire, but she died two years later (12 December 1789) in Yorkshire on the way to Scotland. Margaret [see Flahault de la Billardrie, Margaret de], the only child of the marriage, was born in London on 12 June 1788. In November 1790 Elphinstone travelled to Nice, Venice, and Florence for his health but returned home in May 1791 after reading reports in the newspapers that the naval force was about to be increased. In fact it was not until January 1793, on the outbreak of war, that Elphinstone received orders to take command of the Robust (74 guns); in May he sailed to the Mediterranean in Lord Hood's squadron, which in August took possession of Toulon at the request of the French royalists. Elphinstone, who had been put in command of the troops by Hood, landed on the 28th with 1500 men to capture Fort La Malgue (of which he was appointed governor by Hood) and to protect the eastern side of the harbour. To secure his base he then led a force of 600 British and Spanish troops and seamen, and successfully drove the French from the Ollioules Gorge, capturing all their ordnance, horses, and ammunition. Elphinstone held his position as military governor of La Malgue until December when the arrival of a French republican army, its siege guns commanded by a youthful Major Bonaparte, forced Hood to abandon Toulon. The evacuation by the fleet of more than 14,000 troops and royalist fugitives was entrusted to

Elphinstone: ‘I have infinite pleasure in acknowledging my very great obligation to Captain Elphinstone for his unremitting zeal and exertions, who saw the last man off’ wrote Hood to Henry Dundas, secretary of state, on 20 December (London Gazette, 17 Jan 1794). The Robust, with at one stage 500 royalist refugees and some 2000 troops on board, was the last ship to leave on 27 December. All refugees were landed in Hyères and Robust returned to Gibraltar and thence to England, escorting a convoy of 130 ships. Elphinstone's experience of fighting on shore at Charlestown thirteen years earlier had proved invaluable. He was created a knight of the Bath for his services and on 12 April 1794 was promoted to rear-admiral of the blue. On 30 July 1794 Elphinstone hoisted his flag in the Barfleur (90 guns) for service in the Channel Fleet until the following March when he transferred to the Monarch (74 guns). The Netherlands had been occupied by the French in January 1795 and in April Elphinstone sailed with a small squadron to south Africa to prevent the Dutch Cape Colony from falling into French hands. It was hoped that the name of the prince of Orange, who had found refuge in England, would prevent any opposition. On arrival off Cape Town on 10 June Elphinstone, who had been promoted to vice-admiral on 1 June 1795, was joined by Commodore John Blankett and his four ships; meanwhile 3000 troops sailed to Bahia, Brazil, to await orders. The fleet sailed round to False Bay from where Elphinstone endeavoured to negotiate with the Dutch governor and council. When an American ship arrived from Amsterdam with a Dutch newspaper reporting that all persons were absolved from their allegiance to the prince of Orange the governor determined to take a stronger line with Elphinstone. On

7 August, therefore, Elphinstone's ships bombarded the Dutch camp at Muizenberg in False Bay, and a landing force of 1000 seamen and marines persuaded the Dutch to abandon their camp. On 4 September the reinforcements from Bahia arrived. Bad weather delayed their landing for ten days but on the 16th Cape Town capitulated. Although Elphinstone had little part in the final action, his ability and energy leading to the occupation of Muizenberg won for him the acknowledgements of both his army colleagues and the government. Lord Spencer, the first lord, for example, wrote to express his ‘very sincere congratulations on the very valuable acquisition which you have obtained for this country at so little expense of lives or money’ (29 Dec 1795, Allardyce, 103). In November, Elphinstone with his squadron sailed east for Madras with the intention of seizing the Dutch settlements in India and Ceylon but found that Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier, commander-in-chief in the East Indies, had anticipated him. On receiving intelligence of a Dutch expedition sent to recapture the Cape, Elphinstone returned to Simon's Bay in May 1796, but it was August before a Dutch squadron of eight ships, mostly small, and a transport arrived and was discovered at anchor in Saldanha Bay, 100 miles north of Cape Town.

Elphinstone's force, with seven ships of the line and several frigates, was so overwhelming in gunpower that the Dutch were persuaded to surrender without a shot being fired, the ships' companies becoming prisoners of war and their ships taken into the Royal Navy. Elphinstone sailed home in the Monarch with 500 passengers, suffering severe gales for thirty-six days before arriving at Spithead on 3 January 1797, when he struck his flag. For his successes in south Africa he was created an Irish baron (7 March 1797) with the title of Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal and with remainder to his daughter. It was another three months before Jervis, the captain under whom he had served as a midshipman, was created a peer. Meanwhile Elphinstone had been returned unanimously as MP for Stirlingshire in June 1796 though, as he wrote in 1804, he ‘made it an invariable rule since the year 1792 not to engage in any political career whilst employed on service, thinking it my duty to execute the commands of my superiors faithfully without entering into their motives’ (19 June 1804 to Lord Melville, Lloyd, 3.213).On 1 June 1797 Lord Keith was sent to the Nore to assist in putting down the mutiny which had recently broken out. Accused by the mutineers' delegates of withholding their Cape prize money, he was able to assure them that he had not as yet received any himself. In an open letter on 6 June he explained the reason for the delay, adding: ‘For God's sake reflect on the happy times in which we served together, and on the advantages we brought to our country. Be not misled by designing men, but return to your old friends’ (Allardyce, 144–5). By the 15th all the ships had surrendered. Keith was then sent to Plymouth with his flag in the Queen Charlotte (100 guns), where the mutiny, quelled in May, had broken out again. His tact and firmness as a negotiator with the mutineers' leaders was instrumental in finally ending the mutiny in July. After a few months off Ushant, Keith struck his flag in November and went on leave for a year. In December 1798 he sailed in the Foudroyant (80 guns), transferring in February 1799 to the Barfleur

(98 guns), to command the blockading squadron off Cadiz and as second in command in the Mediterranean to Jervis, now earl of St Vincent. In April 1799 a French fleet of twenty-six ships under Admiral Bruix sailed from Brest and, assisted by a gale off Cadiz, evaded Keith's squadron of only fifteen ships, entered the Mediterranean, and (unknown to the British) reached Toulon on 14 May. Meanwhile Keith followed them to Gibraltar where he joined St Vincent, who was in poor health. Delayed by bad weather it was 12 May before the British fleet, with St Vincent in command, could leave Gibraltar to search for the French. At Minorca they learned that a Spanish fleet of twenty-two ships from Cadiz had also passed through the strait and entered Cartagena, and that the French were in Toulon harbour. On 1 June St Vincent retired sick to Minorca and on the 16th temporarily relinquished command of the Mediterranean Fleet to Keith. Meanwhile, again unknown to the British, the French had left Toulon on 27 May.

After searching for them there and off Genoa, Keith learned that they had joined the Spaniards in Cartagena. Fearing a combined attack on Minorca, the only British base in the western Mediterranean, he returned there on 6 July, where he was joined by twelve ships which had just arrived from England. On the 8th he learned that the combined fleets had left Cartagena, apparently for the Strait of Gibraltar. He was, however, still concerned for Minorca, undefended because of Nelson's refusal of his orders to send ships from Sicily for its defence, and felt obliged to remain there for three more days before sailing in chase of the French. On 14 August he arrived off Brest with thirty-one of the line to find that the French and Spanish fleets had found safety there a week before. The only consolation in this unhappy episode was the capture of five French frigates off Toulon in June. Keith has been criticized for failing to find the enemy fleet and bringing it to action, but to quote the Dictionary of National Biography ‘he seems to have been in a great measure the victim of circumstances; and the divided command and St Vincent's ill health had enormously increased the inherent difficulties of the problem’. C. Lloyd, the editor of the second volume of The Keith Papers (Navy Records Society, 1950), described the search in great detail and came to the same conclusion. After three months in England, Keith was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in succession to St Vincent. He arrived at Gibraltar in the Queen Charlotte in December 1799 and resumed the command from Nelson, who had acted as commander-in-chief during the continued illness of St Vincent. Nelson, himself in poor health, was deeply hurt that the command had not gone to him and, after visiting Keith at Leghorn and accompanying him to Palermo and Malta, retired to Sicily and its royal family, proving of little use as a second in command.

 For Keith's fleet Minorca was available as a base but the French fleet in Toulon had to be watched, Malta was still in French hands until September 1800, a French army was still in Egypt, and the Austrian army in northern Italy needed support from the sea in its endeavours to drive the French out of Tuscany and Piedmont. On 17 March 1800, while Keith was on shore in Leghorn with some of his staff, his flagship, the Queen Charlotte, caught fire and was utterly destroyed with the loss of about 690 lives. The accidental burning of some hay stored under the half-deck was thought to have been the cause.Keith, having lost all his papers, signal books, and belongings, transferred first to the Audacious and then to the Minotaur (both 74 guns). His squadron supported the Austrians by bombarding the French army near Genoa, and in enforcing a tight blockade which in nine weeks was broken by only one small ship (carrying sacks of flour and chestnuts). On 5 June the French evacuated Genoa, but nine days later the position was reversed by Napoleon's victory at Marengo and the armistice with Austria. Keith was obliged to withdraw his squadron to Leghorn where he saw Nelson off on the latter's return overland to England. In August 1800 Keith shifted his flag to the Foudroyant to prepare, in concert with Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, for a descent on Cadiz with 20,000 troops carried in thirty-six transports.

On arrival at Cadiz on 4 October with seven ships of the line, sixteen smaller vessels, and the transports it was learned that yellow fever was rampant in the town. Moreover there were neither suitable landing places nor safe anchorages in bad weather. Keith did not perform well. He could not decide whether a landing should be attempted, and Abercromby found him a difficult colleague. Major-General Sir John Moore, the second in command, wrote that Keith was ‘all confusion, blaming everybody and everything, but attempting to remedy nothing … repeating much more incoherent nonsense’ (Diary of Sir John Moore, ed. J. F. Maurice, 2 vols., 1904, 1.378). On the 7th the attempt was called off and the fleet and transports returned to Gibraltar. Spencer, the first lord of the Admiralty, endorsed the decision. After touching at Malta (which the French had surrendered in September) Keith's fleet and Abercromby's army sailed east to deal with the French army which Napoleon had left behind in Egypt, and to prevent any risk of France obtaining possession of the Red Sea and advancing on India. On 1 January 1801, the day Keith's promotion to admiral was gazetted, the fleet anchored in the sheltered harbour of Marmorice Bay in south-west Turkey—five of the line, two frigates, twelve smaller vessels, 100 troopships carrying 16,150 soldiers, and fifty-seven Turkish vessels. For seven weeks the landing of the army in ships' boats was rehearsed and equipment repaired and improved.

The fleet arrived off Abu Qir on 2 March and after a week of gales the army, including its horses and artillery, was successfully landed on the beaches of Abu Qir Bay against strong opposition and heavy fire. Throughout the campaign Keith was responsible for feeding the army; he had also to guard against any interference by the French navy whose squadrons twice approached the Egyptian coast. Unlike his performance at Cadiz he co-operated well with Abercromby until the latter was killed, meeting on terms of intimacy every day as he told his sister in February, but he found Abercromby's successor, General Hely Hutchinson, indolent and needing constant urging to hasten the campaign. Keith's relationships with his own captains, particularly Alexander Cochrane and Benjamin Hallowell, were also much strained. Cochrane, whom Keith later described as a ‘crackhanded, unsafe man’ (to Markham, 23 Feb 1804, Selections from the Correspondence of … Markham, 153), went so far as to tell Keith that he and his fellow captains ‘consider your Lordship much more inclined to take merit to yourself than to bestow it on others, and that the laurels gained by many deserving officers have been allowed to fade in silence’ (29 Aug 1801, Lloyd, 2.350).

After the fall of Cairo on 28 June and of Alexandria on 2 September the French capitulated, leaving Keith responsible, under the terms of the surrender, for returning more than 24,000 Frenchmen and their baggage to France. ‘It fell to the lot of the army to fight and of the navy to labour’, said Nelson in seconding the vote of thanks in the House of Lords; ‘they had equally performed their duty and were equally entitled to thanks’ (GM, 71, December 1801, 1133). It was indeed a successful example of combined operations with 6000 seamen labouring to assist the army in all weathers. Throughout the operation Keith's administrative ability and his long experience were paramount; he was his own controller, victualler, contract and purchase agent, director of transports, and director of works, as well as having the responsibility for the general command of the Mediterranean Fleet. For his services Keith received the freedom of the City of London with a sword of the value of 100 guineas, the order of the Crescent from the sultan of Turkey, and on 5 December was created a baron of Great Britain and Ireland which necessitated his giving up his seat in the Commons. He was further ennobled on 10 September 1803 when he became Baron Keith of Banheath of county Dumbarton, with remainder to his daughter. After some months in Malta, Keith returned to England in July 1802.

With the resumption of war in May 1803 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the North Sea. When offered the appointment by St Vincent, the first lord, he wrote that he was deeply hurt that a junior officer, Nelson, was being sent to the command he had himself so recently held. Nevertheless his new command, which stretched from Selsey Bill in Sussex to the Shetland Islands, gave him the heavy responsibility of preparing the defence of the coast against a likely invasion from across the channel. He hoisted his flag at the Nore and set up his headquarters in East Cliff Lodge, near Ramsgate; his letters to Rear-Admiral John Markham, one of St Vincent's sea lords, show that he soon realized both the importance and interest of his new command and quickly found much scope for his administrative skills. In addition to controlling operations in the channel and the North Sea, and protecting trade, he was responsible for organizing the sea fencibles from Hampshire to the Forth, the signalling and telegraph systems on shore, the extension of the chain of Martello towers, and liaising with the army. French ports had to be blockaded, and all movements of the enemy, real or pretended, had to be watched since a feint might always be converted into an actual attempt at invasion, and this might come from either Boulogne or the Texel. By 1805 he had six flag officers and nearly 150 ships of all sizes under his command. After Napoleon had transferred his interests to Austria in 1805 and the threat of invasion was therefore much reduced, Keith was more concerned with the continental blockade, with his ships stationed off nearly every port in northern Europe. Keith struck his flag in May 1807 and retired to his estates at Purbrook Park, near Portsmouth, and Kincardine in the Firth of Forth. On 10 January 1808, at the house of his friend Henry Hoare in York Place, London, he was married by the duke of Clarence's chaplain to Hester Maria Thrale (1764–1857) [see Elphinstone, Hester Maria], eldest daughter and heir of Henry Thrale, brewer and MP for Southwark, and Hester Thrale (later Piozzi; 1741–1821) . Lady Keith, known as Queeney, made for her husband an excellent companion in his declining years (at their marriage she was forty-three and he sixty-four). They had one child, Georgiana, who married first the Hon. Augustus Villiers, second son of the fifth earl of Jersey, and second Lord William Osborne, brother of the eighth duke of Leeds, but had no children. On 24 February 1812, after five years ashore, aged sixty-six, and an admiral of the red since July 1810, Keith was appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet on the death of Sir Charles Cotton. He hoisted his flag in the San Josef (114 guns) but in practice spent much of his time ashore in Plymouth to preserve his health. His command extended from Portsmouth to the north coast of Spain and his prime duty was the close blockade of Brest and Rochefort, but he also conducted a remote control over his ships supporting Wellington in northern Spain. He periodically cruised off Brest but the successful command of the blockading squadrons was normally exercised by his subordinate rear-admirals. In April 1814, with Napoleon on his way to Elba, Keith was at La Rochelle supervising the embarkation of Wellington's army for its return to England. He was back at Plymouth on 29 July and hauled down his flag.

His time at Plymouth was also marked by his encouragement of the building of the breakwater in the sound. He had been created a viscount on 14 May and received the GCB on 2 January 1815. However, at the end of April 1815, as soon as it was known that Napoleon had escaped from Elba, Keith returned to his command with his flag in the Ville de Paris (110 guns) at Plymouth. His instructions were to resume the blockade of the western ports of France and to assist the royalists in the Vendée. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo (18 June) Keith sent out over thirty ships to search enemy vessels between Ushant and Finisterre in order to prevent an escape to America. As a result Napoleon offered himself to the Bellerophon (74 guns, Captain Maitland) at Rochefort on 15 July and was taken to Plymouth Sound. To Keith fell the tasks of informing him that the government had decided that he was to be exiled to St Helena, of receiving the full force of Napoleon's objections, of refusing (on the government's instructions) his demands to be treated as an emperor but informing him that he was to be known as General Bonaparte, and of reducing the number of people who could accompany him in his exile. When the time came for Bonaparte to transfer to the Northumberland, which was to take him to St Helena, he is said to have kept the seventy-year-old admiral waiting for two hours in his barge. Admiral Cockburn of the Northumberland remonstrated, but Keith replied: ‘Much greater men than either you or I have waited longer for him before now; let him take his time’ (G. Home, Memoirs of an Aristocrat, 1838, 251). Bonaparte sailed that day, 7 August, and Keith received both the gratitude of the government for handling the matter with such skill and judgement and the respect of Bonaparte. On 19 August, Keith struck his flag and terminated his long naval career. He had accumulated a handsome fortune from prize money, more perhaps than any other naval officer, thanks mainly to his long years as a commander-in-chief which entitled him to a large share of the prize money awarded for ships captured within his command. For example, his service in south Africa and India brought him £64,000 and during the years 1803 to 1806 he received £177,000. He devoted his remaining years to improving and adorning his two estates, Purbrook Park in Hampshire, and Tulliallan, near Kincardine, on the north bank of the Forth, where he reclaimed land and built piers, embankments, and a castle—used by the Polish General Sikorski in the Second World War. His great sadness during these years was that his elder daughter and heir, having wisely declined the hand of the duke of Clarence in 1811, should choose to marry, in 1817, Napoleon's former aide-de-camp, the comte de Flahault. Flahault was later to be the French ambassador to Italy, Austria, and, in 1860, to Great Britain. In 1822 Keith received his last honour, the grand cross of the order of St Maurice and St Lazarus, from the king of Sardinia for his services at the siege of Genoa in 1800. On 10 March 1823 he died in his castle at Tulliallan, aged seventy-seven, and was buried at Overtown church, Kincardine, where he had constructed a mausoleum.His title of a baron of Great Britain and Ireland descended to his elder daughter but expired on her death in 1867.Though he commanded all three main fleets, the channel, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, Keith never (unlike many of his contemporaries) commanded nor fought in a fleet battle which might have brought him greater fame. But he was unrivalled in his day in his experience and skill in combined operations—Charlestown, Toulon, south Africa, Abu Qir—and he was both a consummate seaman and a meticulous administrator. This, and his success in dealing with the several problems he had to face, give his career a particular interest. Steady, persevering, and cautious, he made few mistakes. He was a good, though not quite a great, commander, but a difficult colleague, quick to take offence, and slow to forget a grievance or forgive an error. Yet he had his admirers—St Vincent for example, who openly scorned Scots, wrote that ‘Lord Keith is by far the best [Scot] I ever met with by land or sea’ (to Nepean, 22 Sept 1800, Richmond, 4.4). And again, many years later: ‘I have esteemed you from the hour you embarked with me in the Gosport’ (W. M. James, Old

Oak: Life of Earl St Vincent, 1950, 203; about 1807). Successive first lords of the Admiralty, in addition to St Vincent, seem to have had no less confidence in him.


C. H. H. Owen  DNB




Artist biography

Sanders, George (1774–1846), portrait painter, was born on 21 April 1774, at Kinghorn, Fife, the son of John Sanders and his wife, Jean, née Bruce. His surname is sometimes given as Saunders and he has often been confused with the painter George Lethbridge Saunders (1809–1863), who also painted portraits in miniature. The miniature painter Christina Robertson, née Saunders (1796–1854), whom Sanders later taught, was his niece. He was educated in Edinburgh and afterwards apprenticed there (together with William Allan) to a coach painter named Smeaton or Smiton, ‘a man of considerable taste’

(Conolly, 390). He then practised as a drawing-master, a painter of miniature portraits, and a designer of book illustrations. According to Irwin and Irwin (p. 80), his frontispiece to Zimmerman's romantic study Solitude, with Respect to its Influence upon the Mind and Heart (Edinburgh edn, 1797) shows a contemplative young man by a stream. He also painted a panorama of Edinburgh ‘taken on board ship lying in the River Forth [which] was rather a seaview than a landscape. Many vessels were introduced and the whole … had as good an effect as those of Barker in Leicester Fields’ (Farington, Diary, 24 Oct 1801).

At least fifteen pencil sketches by Sanders survive in an unpublished sketchbook of drawings by various artists compiled by Francis, eighth earl of Wemyss (priv. coll.); these depict landscape and figure scenes at Inveresk and in Haddingtonshire.

On 18 June 1806 Farington noted in his diary: Saunders, Miniature Painter, I called on & saw Him. He told me He came from Edinburgh abt. a year ago and is now so overwhelmed with business as to be obliged to refuse sitters.—He has 30 guineas for a miniature about 3 inches high by 2 inches ½ wide,—for the size (abv.) that 40 guineas—for the next size 50 guineas & for the largest 70 guineas.—I saw portraits of Lord & Lady Fitzharris (Miss Dashwood) and of Sir Stephen Glynn,—Lady Francis Ponsonby &c.—He said that being of a robust constitution He requires Exercise & suffers from close application, having pains in his breast &c. (Farington, Diary,7.2787)

On 9 November 1806, after referring in his diary to David Wilkie, who had himself come to London in 1805, Farington noted that: He [Wilkie] spoke of Saunders the Miniature painter who He sd was encouraged to come to London by Sir Walter Farquar. He sd. Saunders had great ability and finding that miniature painting hurts his eyes proposes to practise in large. (ibid., 8.2900–01) A fellow Scot, Farquar was physician-in-ordinary to the prince of Wales, a position that would have enabled him to introduce his protégé to Scottish and English nobility in London. On 2 August 1811 Farington noted further:

Sir Wm. Beechey has given an acct. of Saunders, the Scotch painter, who after having been very popular as a miniature painter at great prices, has given up that practise & now paints portraits, size of life in oil. He has 250 guineas for a whole length. He applies with great industry; rises at 4 oClock in the morning & goes to bed at 8 oClock at night. (ibid., 11.3979) Sanders suffered increasingly from ophthalmia; despite having given up painting miniatures he was obliged to paint for only six months of each year.Remarkable for its prefiguring of Byron as an icon of the Romantic movement, Sanders's double portrait of him and Robert Rushton, which includes in the background a yacht at anchor and wild mountain scenery (1807–8; Royal Collection), is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

Byron (who had not yet ‘awoke[n] to find myself famous’) commissioned the portrait from his fellow Scot in anticipation of a voyage. But it was Sanders who drew on his knowledge of Reynolds's celebrated Commodore Keppel (1753–4)—based on the Apollo Belvedere (and, possibly, Allan Ramsay's Norman, 22nd Chief of Macleod, 1748)—of Scottish scenery, and of yacht design, as well as his own sensitive ability to render Romantic mood and atmosphere, to produce avant la lettre an image of the author and hero of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a conflation that Byron was later both to contribute to and to deny.

Sanders's experience as a miniature painter is evident in the detailed and highly finished rendering of Byron's head; the smooth quality of the thinly applied paint conveys the beauty of a face that Scott compared to an alabaster vase lit from within (Guiccioli). When Byron wrote to his mother from Constantinople to ask whether she had ‘receive[d] a picture in oil by Sanders in Vigo Lane London’ (Byron's Letters and Journals, 1.251) he eventually received her reply that she had ‘received your Picture about three weeks ago after a great deal of trouble, Saunders said he left it to show as an honor and credit to him, the countenance is angelic and the finest I ever saw and it is very like’ (Peach, 31). The portrait was engraved by William Finden and reproduced as the frontispiece to Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life (1830); via this and subsequent engravings it became perhaps the most widely known portrait of Byron in the nineteenth century.

Before going abroad in 1809 Byron also commissioned Sanders to paint miniatures of himself (prime version, priv. coll.) and several of his ‘most intimate [Harrow] Schoolfellows’ (Byron's Letters and Journals, 1.197), including William Harness and Lord Clare. On his return Byron sat again to Sanders (c.1812; prime version, priv. coll.). The several versions of each of these miniatures of Byron were much sought after by his female acquaintances. After the return of the later miniature to John Murray, following its theft from his house by Lady Caroline Lamb, it was engraved for Byron's publisher by Henry Meyer as the intended frontispiece to a new edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron made ‘a very strong objection to the engraving’ (ibid., 2.224), however, commenting that ‘Sanders would not have survived the engraving’ (ibid., 2.234). While it gives no indication that Sanders's reputation would have suffered, the apparently unique surviving impression (priv. coll.) from Meyer's engraving (all except two were burnt, according to Byron's wishes) is testimony both to the extraordinarily powerful effect that both Byron and his publisher realized that the publication of his portrait could have on his public, and to Sanders's sensitive and sophisticated ability to capture this effect in his portraits of Byron. That his portraits succeeded in conveying to Byron, to his inner circle, and to contemporary and modern viewers a poetic likeness of one who remains a figurehead for Romanticism gives a clear indication of Sanders's important status as a Romantic painter. Sanders's portraits of John, fourth earl of Rosebery, and of his first wife, Harriet, in ‘Van Dyck’ dress (c.1808; both priv. coll.); his double portrait of Walter and Lady Eleanor Campbell of Islay landing from a boat in a stormy sea (priv. coll.); and his large equestrian portrait of Charles, third marquess of Londonderry (priv.coll.), for which he was said to have been paid £800, are further examples of Sanders's blend of portraiture with romantic scenery and / or dress. His portraits appealed to the Scottish nobility and the fashionable world of Regency London; other sitters included Admiral George Elphinstone, Viscount Keith (miniature, 1807); Margaret, countess of Wemyss (oils, priv. coll.); William Cavendish, sixth duke of Devonshire, in ‘Van Dyck’ dress (oils, priv. coll.); and Admiral Sir Charles Rowley (oils; engraved J. Richardson Jackson, 1848). Of his miniature of Princess Charlotte (Royal Collection) the preparatory pencil drawing made during sittings in 1813 is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Engravings by John Burnet, Charles Turner, and Henry Meyer record further portraits.

Sanders exhibited only once at the Royal Academy, in 1834, when he showed five portraits. Conolly (p. 390) records that he ‘declined being a candidate for academic honours’.That several of his sitters were naval officers suggests that Sanders maintained his early knowledge of shipping; in his will he bequeathed his entire estate to two friends, Robert Dryburgh Menzies and Thomas Menzies, shipbuilders at Leith. His male sitters are usually portrayed either in ceremonial naval or military dress, highland dress, or masquerade costume. The latter also enhances several of his portraits of women; Margaret Mercer Elphinstone (later comtesse de Flahault) sat to Sanders in oriental dress (c.1814; priv. coll.). She appears, brightly lit in a darkened interior, in a life-size portrait that is richly coloured, exotic, and sensuous: the warm amber and brown of her dress, and her gorgeous floral turban of gold, red, yellow, and green form a luxuriant setting for the portrayal of her face; her dark eyes and dreamy expression suggest an air of private reverie heightened by the romantic mood of the painting. Sanders travelled frequently to the continent; twenty-six of his watercolour copies after Dutch and Flemish paintings, including works by Rembrandt, are in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. He died, unmarried, at his home in Allsop Terrace, New Road, Middlesex, on 26 March 1846. His will was proved on 21 April 1846 before William Tassie and ‘oil and colorman’ John Page. Tassie, a noted modeller of gems and seals, of 8 Upper Phillimore Place, Kensington, and his nephew William Hardy Vernon, of the rectory, Sutton, Surrey, also a modeller, were the executors. Of Scottish descent, Tassie was a cultivated man whose studio in Leicester Square was a meeting place for artists and literary men, including Moore and Byron. Though details of Sanders's personal life are few his friendships with Farquar and Tassie, and his acquaintance with Wilkie, together with his predominantly Scottish clientele, suggest that throughout his life in London he maintained close contact with the highly successful Scottish group of artists working in London in the early part of the nineteenth century.


Annette Peach  DNB