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Humiliating defeats, devastating losses and unsuccessful battles – mid-1750sBritain was very hard to portray in a cheerful light. Nevertheless, eighteenth-century portraiture attempts to convey an idealistic reflection of contemporarysociety, and Reynolds was an expert on how to create new reality.Just look at Keppel proudly striding onto the shore, while the wreck of his ship issmashedto pieces by the waves! Or Orme in a dignifying pose after atragic American massacre! All idealised for the sake of 'art' – or to act as an advertisement, or propaganda.

Here is another, less famous portraitdating from the mid-50s.Thework wascommissioned to celebrate Admiral Edward Boscawen's (1711-61) promotion for his outstanding service as a naval commander during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48).He is depicted in his 'undress' uniform,with his sword at his side, and the distant ship 'Namur' – which Boscawen commanded – acts as a reminder of his recent achievements.

So far everything seems to accord with the fashionable conventions of 'the perfect soldier portrait'. But something feels different about this image – the posture of the sitter seems to disobey the traditional canon. Instead of a figure of authority and power, the viewer is presented with a modest and humble person. With his rounded shoulders, despondent expression, and downcast hands, Boscawen looks weary rather thanproud and active. Such astrange stance could be explained by the events surrounding the time when the portrait was produced. In light of his promotion, Edward Boscawen was granted the position of squadron commander in North America. In that year, Boscawen's service was unexpectedly interrupted by a rapidly spreading fever on his ships and he was forced to return home – but not before the fever had killed two thousand of his men. Moreover, at that time not only Boscawen's own squadron was in jeopardy; in 1756,the British fleet suffered a series of severe defeats that appear to presage the collapse of the British forces. Both these events might helpto explain the Admiral's dejected state of mind in his portrait.

Another detail in the print, which draws our attention, is Reynolds's representation of the sky. Instead of his usual play with light and shade,here the sky itself takes on its own role. To the left of the composition, patches of light seem to bestruggling to break through the thick banks of cloud, while in the right-hand corner a cluster of ominously dark clouds mark the threat of a thunderstorm. The imminent storm alludes to the atmosphere of desperation and pessimism within society. Moreover, the print form, with all the colours are sucked out of it, only emphasizes the depressing mood captured in this image.

By Olga Feodoridi