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Naval Officers of World War I

1 of 16 portraits of Louis Alexander Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford Haven (Prince Louis of Battenburg)

Naval Officers of World War I, by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, 1921 - NPG 1913 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Naval Officers of World War I

by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope
oil on canvas, 1921
104 in. x 202 1/2 in. (2641 mm x 5144 mm)
Given by Sir Abraham ('Abe') Bailey, 1st Bt, 1921
Primary Collection
NPG 1913

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Physical description

Group portrait of twenty-two figures.


On the 10th January 1919, Viscount Dillon, chairman of the National Portrait Gallery's Trustees, wrote a letter to Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope about a new commission:

'The Trustees have accepted an offer to have painted for presentation to this Gallery three groups of the most distinguished contemporaries of British nationality to commemorate their services to the Empire during the Great War...The donor, who desires that three different artists should be invited to paint these groups, has left the nominations in the hands of the Trustees. I am desired by my colleagues to enquire on their behalf whether you would be willing to undertake to paint one of these groups, namely that representing the statesmen...' [1]

Cope replied two days later acknowledging the letter and appreciating the suggestion that he should paint one of the group portraits, but was dissatisfied with the Trustees' choice of subject for him:

'I do not know whether it is at all intended that the artists be allowed any choice in the selection of their subjects, but, with all respect, I would - if it is possible to do so - greatly prefer to paint the Naval picture rather than that of the Statesmen.' [2]

Within this letter, he stated that his reasons for this came from his many friends and interests in the Senior Service and his confession that he is even 'a bit of a sailor' himself. He also admitted that politics leave him 'somewhat cold'. John Singer Sargent, the artist of the army group portrait (Generals of World War I, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery), also declined the offer of the Statesmen group. According to Michael Howard, in refusing to paint the politicians, both Cope and Sargent were reflecting a widespread public attitude of the time; namely 'that the politicians had made a hash of the war'. [3] Cope's preference was accepted though, and he completed the large work a relatively short two years later. Instead, the artist Sir James Guthrie took on and finished the portrait of the Statesmen (Statesmen of World War I, also still in the Gallery today).

The painting is set in the Admiralty Board Room at the Old Admiralty Office in Whitehall, London and presents the twenty two figures in a measured composition, some standing and some seated. The room retains many of the original features from 1725, the year in which the architect Thomas Ripley completed the Admiralty building, but the arrangement of the figures themselves is imagined. According to a contemporary naval correspondent, the significant, strategic problems of the late war would never have been deliberated over in this particular room. He stated that staff discussions and deliberations of this kind almost invariably took place in the room of the Chief or Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, where the necessary charts and documents were made available. Indeed, he claims that some of the officers depicted had probably never even been inside the Board Room itself. [4] This situation, therefore, like Sargent's and Guthrie's, could never have happened and had to be constructed almost entirely from the artist's own mind.

In Cope's painting, we can see an eighteenth-century wind dial on the wall behind the officers, surrounded by elaborate, limewood, carvings of nautical instruments. The dial was linked mechanically to a metal vane on the roof so the senior officers were always aware of the wind direction during their meetings. In addition to this, a full-length portrait of Lord Nelson by Leonardo Guzzardi hangs on the wall to the far left of the figures, in the same position it is in today. With these decorative elements and the knowledge that it was in this room that Nelson and other naval commanders' despatches were read, including that which told of the victory at Trafalgar and of Nelson's death, this setting recalls distinct memories of the great naval encounters of the past. [5]

The arrangement of the sitters implies a more natural encounter than Sargent's line-up of Generals, but is, perhaps, less about the conversations between individuals than in Guthrie's Statesmen portrait. The most typical portrayals in the group are probably of Viscount Jellicoe and his Chief of Staff, Sir Charles Edward Madden. Whilst Jellicoe sits, deep in thought, Madden leans towards him in a way that is suggestive of the long and anxious discussions these two must have frequently embarked upon during the early days of the Grand Fleet. Another notable grouping includes Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot, Sir Christopher Cradock and Sir Horace Hood, who stand at the back of the picture in the left-hand corner. Overlooked by Lord Nelson, these three are the three Admirals who lost their lives in action before the end of the war.

Whilst there are notable inclusions amongst the sitters, there are also some interesting exclusions. Members of the public at the time the painting was first exhibited were critical of the omission of certain distinguished officers. [6] These include, specifically, Lord Fisher and Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, both of whom held the post of First Sea Lord during the war. It is unclear why Jackson was absent in the final work, although the reason could be that there was simply not enough room for additional figures. Fisher, however, is known to have been barely on speaking terms with anyone by 1918, after coming out of retirement at the request of Winston Churchill but then arguing with him bitterly and retiring again. He therefore refused to have anything to do with this particular project. [7]


1) Letter from Dillon to Stockdale Cope 10th Jan 1919, NPG archives
2) Letter from Stockdale Cope to Dillon 12th Jan 1919, NPG archives
3) Howard lecture
4) Naval Correspondent, 'The Navy and the Academy: Some Sea Officers of the War' in Morning Post, (13 May, 1921)
5) NPG website entry
6) Naval Correspondent, 'The Navy and the Academy: Some Sea Officers of the War' in Morning Post, (13 May, 1921)
7) Howard lecture

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