Repairing Sir Peter Warren
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Sir Peter Warren by Thomas HudsonHISTORY MATTERS

The life-sized portraits of two war heroes dominate the wall of the Portsmouth Atheneum. But the first major American war has been forgotten, as has the British naval hero who ensured the victory. Today the painting of Sir Peter Warren is fading and, with his restoration, comes the restoration of  great story and an ancient friendship. (Full story below) 

He was a big man in his day. In fact, Sir Peter Warren is still as big as life, although he is fading. His colorful full-sized portrait has been part of the Portsmouth Athenaeum since 1827. That makes his enormous head-to-toe picture one of the earliest and certainly the biggest treasure in the ancient library. But this week, after hanging around for nearly 200 years, Sir Peter has left the building. Where did he go? And who the heck was he? It's a story with many twists and turns.

Who am I?

The portrait of Peter Warren stands almost eight feet tall by five feet wide. It was painted in 1746 by an itinerant Scottish artist named John Smibert. More on Smibert later. In the portrait Warren is wearing a long bright blue uniform with gold braid and an equally long red waistcoat. He is the embodiment of the British aristocracy from his curled and powdered wig to his skintight breeches and buckled shoes.

The secret to his fame is coded into the picture. In his right hand Warren holds a long wooden telescope. Therefore, he is a seagoing man of vision and status. The telescope looks to be from the mid-1700s. His uniform identifies him as a captain in the British Navy. His left hand gestures toward a window where a few tall ships are visible. For historians, the background scene depicts the British ships Superbe and Mermaid capturing the French merchant ship Vigilante in 1745. 

 Sir Peter Warren by John Smibert at Portsmouth Athenaeum

CONTINUE Peter Warren article 


What did I do?

That date is significant in Portsmouth history, or at least, it used to be. Back then the British were at war with France. Over here, France controlled a highly fortified city at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia called Louisbourg. The military build-up at Louisborg was making Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts nervous. Shirley also controlled Maine with its valuable fishing grounds on the Canadian border.

There were, as yet, no Sons of Liberty or United States of America. We were all British subjects and Portsmouth was a key British seaport in New England. Based on secret intelligence, Shirley decided that Louisbourg could be taken. He decided to stage an unprecedented raid on the fort there. Gov. Shirley asked William Pepperrell, a super-wealthy merchant from Kittery, to take charge of  the colonial forces from New England. And Shirley asked Peter Warren, then in the West Indies, to command the British portion of the invasion. As many as 4,200 men, most of them New England Yankees, participated in the successful siege of Louisbourg. The French fled. Pepperell and Warren were heroes.  Their portraits still dominate the wall of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. But for the coming year, Warren's painting will be just an empty frame. 

 Sir Peter Warren at Bon Voyage party at Portsmouth Athenaeum October 2013

Super-size me

Born into a poor Irish family, Warren worked his way rapidly up the ranks of the British Navy. He was also a clever businessman. While living in America around 1740, Warren and his American-born wife purchased a 300-acre tract of land in the Green Village of New York City (later Greenwich Village) where they built a mansion and entertained lavishly. After his success at Louisbourg, Warren was appointed Vice-Admiral and used his influence and celebrity from Louisbourg to become the richest officer in the British Navy.

So Warren had plenty of money to commission an extra-large portrait of himself when in Boston in 1746. Before John Singleton Copley (who painted revolutionary men like Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams), there was portrait artist John Smibert. Born in Scotland, Smibert started his career painting coaches and signs before attending art school in London and moving to New England. He has been called "America's first classically trained" portrait artist. Smibert also designed the original Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. But being an artist was tough then, like today, and he was required to earn a portion of his income selling art supplies and prints from his Boston studio.

Records show that Warren paid Smibert 32 guineas for his painting in August of 1746. Sir William Pepperrell of Kittery paid the same for his. Another Louisbourg Captain named Richard Spry sat for his portrait at the same time. Spry's smaller portrait cost 16 guineas and is also in the Athenaeum collection. Gov. William Shirley also posed for Smibert, but that painting has since disappeared.


Friends before Facebook

In the battle for Louisbourg, Warren and Pepperrell were often contentious co-commanders. Warren was an ambitious and aggressive British military officer with trained maritime troops. Pepperell had no military experience and there were doubts that his volunteer Yankee militia could perform on land under fire. Warren preferred to attack the fort before French reinforcements arrived. Pepperell chose to starve, bomb, and outflank the fort with a month-long siege. But when the French finally surrendered, the two very different leaders became pals.

As a token of their mutual admiration (and perhaps to soothe bruised egos) the heroes of Louisbourg planned to exchange portraits of one another. Warren returned to England amid acclaim soon after Louisbourg. There he commissioned another painting of himself by artist Thomas Hudson.  (See the painting by Thomas Hudson, with the same telescope and ship symbols, on Peter Warren's Wikipedia page.) But the exchange never happened. Warren died in 1752 at age 49 and was buried in London's prestigious Westminster Abbey. The Warren painting by Hudson never left England. It is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The group of Louisbourg hero portraits by Smibert stayed with the Pepperrell family in Kittery Point. They were among the windfall inherited by Pepperrell's grandson William Sparhawk in 1759, who had to agree to legally change his name to "William Pepperrell"  -- which he happily did -- to receive his inheritance. The Pepperrell collection of  more than 50 colonial paintings hung at the grand Sparhawk Hall at Kittery Point until the last member of that family died in 1817. (The mansion is gone, but you can see the Sparhawk front door as part of the new American wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.) The house and its contents went to the Sheafe family in repayment for debts owed. The Sheafe family donated the three Smiberts -- Warren, Pepperrell, and Spry -- to the Athenaeum in 1829.  

The giant William Pepperrell painting by John Smibert is no longer hanging at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. It ended up at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The Pepperrell on display today is a copy by Ulysses Dow Tenney, painted specifically for the Athenaeum to accompany the Warren portrait. The two portly bewigged gentlemen have been standing side by side since 1892, except when under repair.

Preserving old paintings and artifacts is expensive. Warren's portrait has been  through a number of restorations. The most recent was 32 years ago. Today, according to conservator Martha Cox of Shapleigh, Maine, Warren's portrait is again under siege. Old and new layers of varnish on the canvas are "blooming," creating "an unsightly and unhealthy grayish opaque film." She estimates her repair cost at $10,000.

  Sir-Peter Warren Leaves Athenaeum in October 2013      

So who cares?

Even Sir Peter Warren's biographer Julian Gwyn admits that, in England, Warren no longer makes it into the textbooks, where he is "more or less forgotten." Gwyn, author of An Admiral for America (2004) is Canadian, and Warren is still remembered in Canada for the siege on Louisbourg, but for little else. Even at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, until recently, he has been known as '"the guy next to Sir William Pepperell."

In fact, restoring Warren did not originally get the green light from the nonprofit membership library that has been preserving Portsmouth documents and artifacts since 1817.  The project was considered too costly and not urgent enough to be covered by the Portsmouth Athenaeum's shoestring annual budget or limited cash reserves.

But the mission of the Portsmouth Athenaeum is to preserve its collection against all odds. So a committee of volunteers brainstormed ways to find the money to restore the Warren portrait. After securing private donations, the 400 library "proprietors" were invited to bid Sir Peter "bon voyage" at an evening fundraiser. A silent auction among members held last month raised $4,400 and the total was reached. The painting was removed from the wall on Friday and is scheduled to be shipped back from Maine in 2014. In the meantime, Warren's portrait even has its own Facebook page.

Peter Warren may not matter much these days, but his painting does. The Louisbourg group was an effort to commemorate an alliance in what was, at the time, one of the most important events in "American" history. Gov. Shirley's bold campaign against the French had succeeded by combining British and colonial forces in a way that had never been done before. The victory was seen as an act of God's favor and was celebrated with parades and sermons. Captured booty, including the bell in St. John's Church, became local relics. Historians have suggested that the success of the Louisbourg campaign helped inspire colonial Americans to break from England and become an independent nation.  

These paintings were not only the biggest works by John Smibert, but Warren and Pepperrell were his very last subjects. Smibert was ill at the time and never painted again. These works have since become important landmarks in the history of American painting. They show American-born Pepperrell standing tall (and wide) as an aristocrat and hero, equal on canvas to his British counterpart. After Louisbourg, Pepperrell was appointed a baronet, becoming the first man born in America to receive a royal title.

But most importantly for Portsmouth, the restoration of Sir Peter Warren shows once again how passionate local citizens are when it comes to preserving the city's past.  Quietly, without fanfare, a dedicated group of volunteers have again used their own resources to save another city treasure. It is what the Portsmouth Athenaeum and local nonprofit historical groups throughout the city do behind-the-scenes every day. They are "keeping Portsmouth Portsmouth" in the deepest sense possible, and we all benefit from their efforts.    

SOURCES: Special thanks to Peggy Hodges and curator Elizabeth Aykroyd of the Portsmouth Athenaeum for research assistance on this article. For much more on Peter Warren see Admiral for America (2004) by Julian Gwyn and on the 1745 siege read Yankees at Louisbourg (1999) by George A. Rawlyk. For more on the Louisbourg portraits see American Art Journal, Winter, 1983.   

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS.