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One of the most potent ways in which art served the cause of British national identity was through portraits of contemporary military figures. Such paintings could create heroes whose identities as Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotsmen or Welshmen were subsumed within the larger unity of a British army.

Reynolds’s portrait of his friend Admiral Viscount Keppel shows a naval commander in what had become the British, and no longer the English, navy. Reynolds painted this picture for Thomas Erskine, an advocate who had successfully defended Keppel against the charge of failing to engage in battle with the French navy.

September 2004