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Repairing Sir Peter Warren


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.


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