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Repairing Sir Peter Warren

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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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. 

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