Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Robert Grant (1799-1820), c.1820 

George Watson PRSA (1767-1837)

Robert Grant (1799-1820), c.1820, George Watson PRSA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
67 x 55 in (170 x 140 cm)
Doig, Wilson & Wheatley, Edinburgh, c.1895-1957; Private collection, Scotland
(Further Reading) T. Robson, St Helena Memoirs, Being the Memoir of a Young Officer of the Royal Navy who died at St Helena, 17th December 1820í (London, 1821); A. Chaplin, A St. Helena Whoís Who, Or a directory of the Island during the captivity of Napoleon (London, 1914)
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This striking portrait, which daringly breaks the compositional conventions of early nineteenth-century British portraiture, depicts the young midshipman Robert Grant, who is best remem-bered for the highly emotive memoir published the year after his premature death in 1820 on St. Helena, whilst stationed there during Napoleonís imprisonment.

Robert Grant, born in 1799, was the second son of Francis Grant, laird of Kilgraston, Perth-shire and his wife Ann (nťe Oliphant). His younger brothers included the portrait painter Sir Francis Grant PRA (1803-78) and General Sir James Hope Grant (1808-75). As a child, Grant was described as Ďa wild boy, full of all sorts of tricksí(1) and after leaving school he entered the navy as midshipman on the brig HMS Saracen, 18 guns. He then transferred to HMS Liffey, 50 guns, before joining, early in 1820, HMS Vigo, 74 guns, under Captain Thomas Brown.

HMS Vigo was the flagship of the St Helena station from 1820-21 and so responsible for guarding the exiled emperor Napoleon. Shortly after joining the Vigo, however, Grant displayed the first symptoms of consumption and on his arrival at St Helena he was transferred to the naval hospital at High Peak. On showing improvement, he was moved to Masonís Stock House, a military boarding house near Napoleonís residence of Longwood. During his illness, Grant seems to have undergone a spiritual conversion, devoting himself to praying for Napole-onís redemption, and composing a series of prayers whilst at Masonís Stock House, which were subsequently published.

When his condition deteriorated, Grant was moved back to the naval hospital. He died at 9pm on his twenty-first birthday, 17 December 1820, only hours after inheriting £10,000 which, in his last act, he bequeathed to his mother. He was buried on St Helena, five months before the death of Napoleon.

The bold placing of the boat in the immediate foreground, an imaginative reference to Robert Grantís vocation, is highly idiosyncratic for this period, giving the painting an almost tangible sense of reality.

Born in Berwickshire, George Watson initially trained under the Scottish landscape painter Alexander Nasmyth in Edinburgh, before going on to spend two years in London with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). On his return to Scotland, he began practising in Edinburgh, much in the vein of Henry Raeburn, and in 1826 he was one of the founding members of the Royal Scottish Academy and its first president.

(1) T. Robson, p.14
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