Maritime Art

Captain Sir William George Fairfax 1739-1813

By John Smart (1742-1811)

William George Fairfax became a Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy in 1810 after a long career that touched on some of the most significant naval events and personalities of the period. He entered the navy aged eleven, serving under Augustus Keppel in HMS Centurion, the sixty-gun ship which had been the flagship of George Anson’s squadron that had circumnavigated the globe in 1740. Fairfax went on to serve with Mariot Arbuthnot and John Elphinston.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution Fairfax was placed in command of the cutter HMS Alert and was sailing in company with HMS Arethusa in the opening single-ship action of the war when the French frigate Belle Poule, in one of the most celebrated actions in French naval history, fought off her British enemy. In that battle Fairfax’s Alert captured a French lugger. Shortly afterwards, however, the Alert herself was captured and Fairfax spent the rest of the war as a prisoner before being released towards the war’s end

Fairfax was promoted steadily over the coming years and eventually became flag-captain to Admiral Duncan in the North Sea squadron. He stood by Duncan during the 1797 mutiny in the North Sea squadron whic had spread there from Spithead and the Nore, and then took part in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. This oval miniature, by the celebrated miniature painter John Smart (1742-1811) was created around that time. For his services in that year Fairfax was knighted.

The Society published a brief article on this miniature in 1991, written by the naval historian Michael Duffy and a number of articles on the events of Fairfax’s life including this article from 1937 on the role of William Bligh at the battle of Camperdown. The extraordinary story of the Elphinstons in Catherine the Great’s navy is explored in this article from 1998.

Maritime Art Archive

Previously Featured