This is not a selfie by a 14-year-old: it’s a portrait paid for by the boy’s parents and executed by a painter renowned for his ability to render details. So nothing is accidental, from the alert look in his eyes and the confident stance, to the nautical gear in the foreground and the ship on a stormy sea in the background.
When young Augustus (1769-1840) went off to sea in 1782, Britain was still at war: the treaties that ended hostilities with the United States, France, and Spain weren’t signed until late 1783. The young man’s father – and the commanding officer on his first ship – was Admiral James Brine, who had fought at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781. In that battle, the French fleet prevented the British from landing reinforcements at Yorktown, which led to Cornwallis’s surrender six weeks later. By the War of 1812 (the Napoleonic Wars, on the world stage), no-longer-young Augustus had risen to the rank of commander, with his own ship. In 1822, he became a rear admiral. I haven’t been able to find any images of him in his later years.
I like to think that this painting was done for Augustus’s mother, who was sending her eldest son off to a very uncertain fate. Oceans rise, empires fall, and eighteenth-century ships often sunk without a trace. (Sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be a Hamilton Musical post … but look what happened to Aaaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.)
I’ve yet to see a John Singleton Copley painting that wasn’t worth a long look, but one of my absolute favorites is Copley’s painting of Paul Revere holding a teapot. It’s inscribed with the date 1768. The Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, the famous midnight ride in 1775.