Spithead, Hampshire, England
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This is one of two versions of this portrait of the former boatswain's mate (1793-96) of Nelson's 'Agamemnon', showing the full figure and the sitter with a rather defeated expression. The sharper truculence here perhaps more accurately reflects his unwillingness to sit for Cruikshank at which the artist's related letter (see below) seems to hint. This may therefore, in fact, be the original sketch version. Adams had apparently been sent to sit for Cruikshank, along with Pensioner John Lovell, of whom the large watercolour portrait by this artist is also in the collection. An undated letter from the artist, which is with this item and and was formerly attached to it, is addressed from 12 Charles Street, Middlesex Hospital. 'Dear Sir, / I am delighted with John Lovell as a sitter he appears a steady man. Wilkinson [underlined] I fear is not [is not, underlined] he left me at four 'o clock and promises to be seen tomorrow before eleven. I hope he will come provided he can be trusted to return in proper time. It will give me pleasure to present you with a sketch of both my clients. I hope to finish with them on Saturday/ I am Dr Sir yours most truly obliged F. Cruikshank'The addressee was probably Joseph W. Allen, the 'Superintendent of Halls' at Greenwich Hospital, but also a naval writer and the editor of 'Allen's Navy List', who seems to have commissioned these drawings, albeit for so far unknown reasons. He has overwritten a further note in the blank space at the top: 'John Adams alias Wilkinson, a native of Whitehaven, who was Boatswains Mate of the Agamemnon while that ship was commanded by Captain Nelson - viz - from the 8th April 1793 till the 16th September 1796'. It appears from Allen's further notes on Adams/ Wilkinson in NMM BGY/W/3, that he was given 2s 6d a day for his fare to go and be drawn by Cruickshank (and presumably Lovell was too) but preferred to walk to London from Greenwich so he might spend the money on 'bacca' (tobacco) - hence his reported unreliability. The notes also give a more detailed biography, stating that Adams was born John Wilkinson at Whitehaven, Cumbria, in 1762, and began his seafaring life as an apprentice in the Irish coal trade. He was then induced by 'real wages' of £4-15s a month to embark in a Liverpool snow on a slaving voyage to Guinea. The ship struck a sunken rock and they were rescued by the RN vessel 'Express', on which he was detained as a naval seaman until the end of the American War, when he 'ran' from the service and returned to merchant seafaring (and presumably became 'Adams' at that time). At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 he was serving in a transport vessel out of which he was pressed while lying in the Long Reach in the Thames and sent aboard the Nore guardship. From there he was drafted into Nelson's 'Agamemnon' when she was completing for Hood's squadron bound for Toulon. He was in the 'Agamemnon' from 8 April 1793 to 16 September 1796, mostly as a boatswain's mate, which Nelson rated him for his skill as helmsman in the brief foray 'Agamemnon' made chasing French frigates into La Hogue before sailing for the Mediterranean. He subsequently took a conspicuous part in the sieges of Bastia and Calvi, undergoing hardships as bad as any in the war. He left the 'Agamemnon' on promotion and joined the 'Ganges', coming back to England in the 'Montague' and having 'jumped an examination' was borne on the books of the 'Royal William' as candidate for a boatswain's warrant, but became impatient of continuing neglect. So he wrote to Nelson on his return home, who got him a place in the 'Pylades' sloop. He became a Greenwich pensioner in 1835.
Credit Line: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London