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Portrait of Prince William Henry Aboard a Warship of the British Royal Navy. Etching and aquatint in reddish brown, after Benjamin West. 55.6 x 48 cm. Le Blanc 618; De Vesme-Calabi 926 I–II (of III).
This charming portrait shows Prince William Henry of England (later King William IV, 1765 – 1837) as a young cadet on board the warship “Prince George”. Having enlisted in the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of thirteen, the third son of King George III took an active part in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (16 January 1780) off the Portuguese coast, where the British Navy defeated a Spanish fleet. Because of his years of service in the British Navy William Henry was later dubbed the “Sailor King”.
The composition is taken from a painting by Benjamin West. The vibrant figure of the little prince is positioned a little to the right of centre and shown full length; his head with its astonishingly modern and fashionable-looking hairstyle is turned to the left. Despite his dashing cadet uniform and the impressive sabre he makes an almost touchingly childlike impression. A light breeze billows the sails of the huge mast of the ship and catches at the neckerchief and collar of his uniform. In the bay in the background other warships are lying at anchor and a small fort is flying the Union Jack.
Bartolozzi settled in London in 1764 and soon became the most sought-after reproductive engraver of his time. The virtuosity of his engraving technique is seen to full advantage in this work. The extensive use of aquatint produces fine tonal gradations and creates subtle, atmospheric transitions. While the artist uses a relatively simple pattern of parallel strokes and cross-hatching to render the textures of the clothing, a particularly dense system of hatching and stippling has been employed with remarkable sensitivity to render the details of the hair and flesh tones.
A superb early impression printed with tone, in an intermediate state not described by De Vesme-Calabi: After the completion of the hatching on the sail, but before all text and before further additions in aquatint. With narrow margins around the platemark on three sides and with a wide empty text margin at the bottom. In the lower margin a contemporary annotation in pen and brown ink: “Prince William Henry”.