Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Captain the Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham M.P.(1736-1780) 1760c.

Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718–1784)

Captain the Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham M.P.(1736-1780), Nathaniel Hone the Elder
Oil on canvas
18th Century
90 x 60 inches 228.6 x 152.4 cm
The Earls of Shannon
This magnificent portrait is one of the most impressive works of Nathaniel Hone's career, and is more than a match for the competing naval portraits of his contemporaries, such as Ramsay's Admiral Boscawen of 1758 and Gainsborough's Earl of Bristol of 1765. The former painting may have been in the mind of both sitter and painter, since not only does it precede this portrait so immediately but like Captain Boyle Walsingham it was intended to commemorate the sitter's participation in the capture of the (then) French-Canadian port of Louisbourg. Boyle's role was, necessarily, less than that of his Commanding Officer but he shares Boscawen's eagerness to be associated with such a significant victory -as well as arrogating to himself the aristocratic privilege of being depicted in the grand manner. It is a measure of Hone's ambition too that this portrait, in fact one of his earliest oil portraits (a medium to which he only began to devote his time after 1760) should be one of his most grandiose and technically accomplished. It is worth remembering that the artist's career was later marked by intermittent feuding with Reynolds, and if this rivalry appeared in earlier years it is possible that this present portrait was considered an audacious response to Reynolds's much-admired portrait of Admiral the Hon. Augustus Keppel, painted in 1752 but still displayed in the studio in 1759.

The Hon. Robert Boyle, fifth son of the famous first Earl of Shannon, Speaker and then Lord Chancellor in the Irish Parliament, had been intended early for a naval career. Though we do not know at what age he entered the Navy as a Midshipman, by the age of twenty in 1756 he was promoted Lieutenant and given command of the supply vessel HMS Crown. This unglamorous role was a necessary but brief apprenticeship as a ship's commander, and within the same year Boyle was posted to the Sloop of War HMS Badger.

An earl''s son enjoyed swift promotions in the armed forces: on February 16th 1757 he was gazetted as a Commander, and on June 15th of that year raised again to the rank of Captain and assigned to the frigate HMS Jason. As the inscription on the portrait of Captain Boyle by Nathaniel Hone makes plain, Boyle served in 1758 in the celebrated campaign led by Admiral Edward Boscawen that resulted in the capture of the French Canadian fortress at Louisbourg. The Naval Roll of 1758 shows that Boyle was appointed Captain of the 6th Rate, 28-gun ship, which sailed from England on January 21st, as part of Admiral Boscawen's force, and finally reached Louisbourg on June 2nd of that year.

His duties in that campaign would have been, in common with the other frigate Captains, to maintain fire on the French defensive batteries from close inshore, and to screen the larger and less manoeuvrable troop ships from attacking enemy vessels. The role was an essential element in what was not only a victory of inestimable importance in opening Canada to British conquest and colonisation but was to be seen as an archetype of the British military victory against the French, achieved not only through good supply and planning but with a greater degree of personal courage and sheer audacity than the enemy could muster.

Boyle's next action was one of a more immediate glory, and thought worthy of engraving as a print . When stationed in the West Indies, still Captain of the Boreas, sailing with two other ships he encountered a squadron of five French vessels. In the subsequent engagement four of the enemy ships were captured, only one of them escaping, and Captain Boyle was personally responsible for the taking of the Sirenne. His next command, the 64-gun HMS Modeste was a vessel captured from the enemy, but it is uncertain whether it was one of these four vessels.

Boyle's activities were not solely military, however; appropriately, for the son of a political peer, he was also expected to make a career for himself in Parliament. He was connected to the powerful Cavendish family through the marriage of his kinswoman Lady Charlotte Boyle -daughter of the architect Earl of Burlington- to the 4th Duke of Devonshire, and the Duke became his political sponsor. Soon after he came of age he was returned for Knaresborough, a pocket borough which Lady Charlotte had brought into the Cavendish family. He was not returned for that seat in 1761, perhaps because he was away at sea, but an alternative was soon found for him at Fowey in Cornwall. In a letter that casts an interesting light on political fixing in the period, the Duke of Newcastle writes to the Duke of Devonshire on June 12th:
''Singly out of regard for you I have agreed with My Lord Edgcumbe that he shall choose Captain Boyle at Fowey.''
Newcastle emphasised the nature of this favour, however, by stressing that Boyle would have to pay his own expenses. Boyle was by background and disposition a Whig, and in his support for the opposition during George III's reign Newcastle described him as a ''sure friend''.

The years 1761-2 saw Boyle -now surnamed Walsingham, since some time after the death of his nephew Henry in 1757- serving as part of Sir George Rodney's highly successful expedition to Martinique. He was clearly a person of favour within the Navy, certainly a suitable ambassador from the service to Westminster, and he was chosen to present Sir George's news of the conquest.

On his return he was appointed to HMS Romney, a vessel of 54-guns which at the time was reckoned the finest ship of her class in the Navy. This remained Boyle's command until the end of the war with France.

Peace enabled Boyle Walsingham to devote more time to his political career, and he began to be a more active figure in Opposition circles. He voted eleven times in Divisions between 1768 and 1774, each time against the Government. He won the respect of the House for his tolerance and moderation. In 1775 he intervened on behalf of two men unjustly condemned for murder after a riot at the Middlesex by-election. Political and military prudence was demonstrated in his continued opposition between 1775 and 1778 to war with the American Colonies. He warned Parliament that ''our present naval force was by no means adequate to the execution of our professed intentions.'' He supported Burke's conciliation proposals of 16th November 1775, and thus numbered himself among the far-sighted opponents of an unwise conflict.

In 1778 Captain Boyle Walsingham was appointed to the 74-gun HMS Thunderer, which was to prove his final command. The war with France being resumed, he captained this ship on July 27th in the famous action against the French off Ushant, in which he led the division of the Commander-in-chief on the starboard tack. In this engagement he commanded with considerable daring and bravery, and as Charnock records in the Biographia Navalis, the Thunderer ''though very materially and distinguishedly engaged had no more than seven men killed and wounded.''

The engagement off Ushant was, however, not without controversy. Popular dissatisfaction at an inconclusive battle found expression in accusations against Admiral Palliser, Admiral Keppel's fellow commander. When Keppel failed to make a public declaration of his confidence in Palliser a dispute broke out between the two men which resulted in the resignation of Palliser, and the self-submission of each admiral in turn to a court martial.

Walsingham was aware of the absurdity in these proceedings, and that they were potentially injurious to naval morale. On 11th November 1778 he wrote to the Earl of Sandwich, First Sea Lord:
Whenever it is mentioned amongst us it is talked of as a most unhappy affair which rose from nothing and may end unpleasantly; but there is no party in the case, indeed there is no grounds for it.''
On December 10th of that year he opposed a motion in the Commons calling for a court martial of Palliser, since he held that there was no action during the conflict for which Palliser could be blamed. He continued to block attempts to bring some action against Palliser, and on September 3rd 1779 concluded:
''All party I hope is now laid aside; give us a man to command us that we have confidence in… and we will ensure you success.''

This even-handedness was characteristic of the man. He described himself as ''an independent man, and… ready to put the smiles and frowns of either side of the House equally at defiance.'' He opposed Fox's attacks on the Admiralty and the career of Lord Sandwich in April 1779, stating that ''no man who ever sat at the Admiralty Board had exerted himself with more zeal or more effectually than the noble Lord who at present presides there.'' This affection for Lord Sandwich, who frequently a political opponent, is shown by a letter written to Walsingham on the morning after the murder of Martha Ray, the mistress of Lord Sandwich, in which the Earl urges:
''For God's sake come to me immediately, in this moment I have much need of the comfort of a real friend.''

In the following year he was ordered to Jamaica in the Thunderer and deployed with the rank of Commodore at the head of a cruising squadron. In October the ship was caught in a great storm in which:
''the Thunderer was destroyed, not a single person of the whole crew surviving the misfortune, so that both the place where this fatal accident took place as well as the circumstances which attended it, remain totally unknown.''

No subsequent account has been able to improve on that of Charnwood. In England there was disbelief at the loss; Boyle Walsingham had been returned in the election of 1780 for Knaresborough, and for a year Parliament waited to hear any news of his survival, before issuing a new writ in 1781.

Boyle Walsingham's career is a reminder of the swift promotion and successes that a aristocrat's son might enjoy as a naval officer, just as his death underlies its obvious dangers. Officers'' sons, and the younger sons of gentlemen, enjoyed considerable opportunities in the navy to become rich through bounty, but these ambitions might end early. One of the midshipmen who drowned aboard the Thunderer was sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Cook, second son of Captain James Cook; a second midshipman who died on the expedition, somewhat earlier of a fever, was Samuel Linley, the son of the composer Thomas Linley, whose portrait in Midshipman’s uniform by Gainsborough is in the collection at Dulwich.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.