Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Porter, Robert Ker
PORTER, Sir ROBERT KER (1777–1842), painter and traveller, was one of the five children of William Porter, who was born in 1735, and was buried at St. Oswald, Durham, in September 1779, after twenty-three years' service as surgeon to the 6th (Inniskilling) dragoons. He was descended from an old Irish family which claimed among its ancestors Sir William Porter, who fought at Agincourt, and Endymion Porter. His mother was Jane, daughter of Robert Blenkinsop of Durham. She died at Esher in 1831, aged 86. Robert's brothers, both older than himself, were William Ogilvie Porter, M.D., a naval surgeon, who after his retirement practised over forty years in Bristol, and died in that city on 15 Aug. 1850, aged 76; and Colonel John Porter, who died in the Isle of Man, aged 38, in 1810. His sisters, Jane [q. v.] and Anna Maria [q. v.], are separately noticed.
Robert was born at Durham in 1777, but spent his boyhood in Edinburgh, whither his mother, who was very poor, and depended largely upon the support of her husband's patrons in the army, had removed in 1780. While at Edinburgh he attracted the notice of Flora Macdonald, and, in consequence of his admiration for a battle-piece in her possession representing some action in the rising of 1745, he determined to become a painter of battles. In 1790 his mother took him to Benjamin West, who was so struck by the vigour and spirit of some of his sketches that he procured his admission as an academy student at Somerset House. His progress was remarkably rapid. In 1792 he received a silver palette from the Society of Arts for an historical drawing, ‘The Witch of Endor.’ In 1793 he was commissioned to paint an altar-piece for Shoreditch church; in 1794 he painted ‘Christ allaying the Storm’ for the Roman catholic chapel at Portsea; and in 1798 ‘St. John Preaching’ for St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1799, when he was living with his sisters Jane and Anna Maria, at 16 Great Newport Street, Leicester Square, he was a member of a small confraternity of young artists, including Girtin and Cotman, who lived in the immediate neighbourhood, and were members of a society founded by Louis Francia for the cultivation of historic landscape. The artistic precocity of ‘Bob Porter’ and the skill with which he wielded the ‘big brush’ were already fully recognised, and in 1800 he obtained congenial work as a scene-painter of ‘antres vast and deserts wild’ at the Lyceum Theatre; but in 1800 he astonished the public by his ‘Storming of Seringapatam,’ a sensational panorama, which was 120 feet in length, and is stated on the good authority of Jane Porter to have been painted in six weeks. This huge picture, borne on rollers and carried round three-quarters of a circle, was one of the first of a species which has since become extremely popular, especially in France. After its exhibition at the Lyceum it was rolled up, and was subsequently destroyed by fire; but the original sketches and the engravings of Vendramini preserve some evidence of its merits. Other successful works in the same genre were the ‘Battle of Lodi’ (1803), also exhibited at the Lyceum, and the ‘Defeat of the French at the Devil's Bridge, Mont St. Gothard, by Suwarrow in 1804,’ to both of which explanatory handbooks were issued. Other battle-pieces, in which he displayed qualities of vigour that bordered upon the crude and a daring compared by some to that of Salvator Rosa, were ‘Agincourt’ (executed for the city of London), the ‘Battle of Alexandria,’ the ‘Siege of Acre,’ and the ‘Death of Sir Ralph Abercrombie,’ all of which were painted about the same time. Porter also produced easel-pictures; and in 1801 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a successful portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Johnston as Hamlet and Ophelia. In all, between 1792 and 1832 he exhibited thirty-eight pictures, the majority being either historical pieces or landscapes. In 1797 he had started, with the aid of his sisters, an illustrated periodical called ‘The Quiz,’ for which he enlisted the support of Thomas Frognall Dibdin [q. v.], but this had a very brief existence.
Porter was in 1803 appointed a captain in the Westminster militia; but from the career of a regular soldier, which had a stronger attraction for him than any other, he was deterred by the urgent solicitations of his family. In 1804, however, his restless and energetic nature obtained some satisfaction by his appointment as historical painter to the czar of Russia. He immediately started for Russia, and was employed upon some vast historical paintings, with which he decorated the Admiralty Hall at St. Petersburg. During his residence in the capital he won the affections of a Russian princess, Mary, daughter of Prince Theodor von Scherbatoff, but some hitch in the courtship necessitated his leaving Russia, whereupon he travelled in Finland and Sweden, and he was knighted by the eccentric king Gustavus IV in 1806. He then visited several of the German courts, was in 1807 created a knight of St. Joachim of Würtemberg, and subsequently accompanied Sir John Moore (whom he had met and captivated while in Sweden) to Spain. He was with the expedition throughout, was present at Coruña and at the death of the general, and took home many sketches of the campaign. In the meantime, in 1809, had appeared his ‘Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden during the years 1805–1808,’ in two sumptuous quarto volumes, elaborately illustrated by the author, but showing neither remarkable literary faculty nor any special powers of observation. It was followed at a brief interval by ‘Letters from Portugal and Spain, written during the march of the troops under Sir John Moore,’ 1809, 8vo. In 1811 he revisited Russia, and on 7 Feb. 1812 he triumphantly married his Russian princess. He was subsequently received in Russian military and diplomatic circles, and became well acquainted with the Russian version of the events of 1812–13, of which he gave a graphic account in his ‘Narrative of the Campaign in Russia during 1812.’ He had returned to England previous to the appearance of his book, and was on 2 April 1813 knighted by the prince-regent. He was soon abroad again, and in August 1817 he started from St. Petersburg upon an extended course of travel, proceeding through the Caucasus to Teheran, thence southwards by Ispahan to the site of the ancient Persepolis, where he made many valuable drawings and transcribed a number of cuneiform inscriptions. After some stay at Shiraz, he retraced his steps to Ispahan, and proceeded to Ecbatana and Bagdad; and then, following the course of Xenophon's Katabasis, to Scutari. He published the records of this long journey in his ‘Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia, 1817–1820,’ 2 vols. 4to, 1821. This huge book, which is full of interest and is a great advance upon his previous volumes of travel, was illustrated by bold drawings of mountain scenery, of works of art, and antiquities. A large number of Porter's original sketches are now preserved in the British Museum, to which they were presented by the author's sister Jane. At Teheran Porter had an interview with the Persian monarch Futteh Ali Shah, whose portrait he drew, and from whose hands in 1819 he received the insignia of the order of the Lion and the Sun. After returning to England, he soon left again for Russia, but in 1826 he was appointed British consul in Venezuela. During the fifteen years that he held that position he resided at Caracas, where he kept up an extensive hospitality, and became well known and popular. He continued to employ his pencil, and painted several large sacred pieces, including ‘Christ instituting the Eucharist,’ ‘Christ healing a Little Child,’ ‘Ecce Homo,’ and ‘St. John writing the Apocalypse.’ He also painted a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the founder of the republic of Columbia.
In 1832, in recognition of the benefits he had conferred upon the protestant community of Caracas, he was created a knight-commander of the order of Hanover. He returned to England in 1841. His wife had died at St. Petersburg, of typhus fever, on 27 Sept. 1826; but his only daughter was still living in the Russian capital, having in 1837 become the wife of M. Kikine, an officer in the Russian army. After a short stay with his brother, Dr. William Ogilvie Porter, at Bristol, he went on a visit to Madame Kikine. On 3 May 1842 he wrote from St. Petersburg to his brother that he was on the eve of sailing for England; but he died suddenly of apoplexy as he was returning in his drosky from a farewell visit to the czar Alexander I on the following day. He was buried in St. Petersburg, a monument being also erected to his memory in Bristol Cathedral. Owing to his large expenditure his affairs were left in some disorder, but his estate was finally wound up in August 1844 by his executrix, Jane Porter, who speaks of him with the greatest affection as her ‘beloved and protecting brother.’ His books, engravings, and antiquities were sold at Christie's on 30 March 1843. His drawings included twenty-six illustrations to the odes of Anacreon, a large panoramic view of Caracas, and a very interesting sketch-book (forty-two drawings) of Sir John Moore's campaigns, which was presented by his sister to the British Museum. In the print-room there are several other drawings by Porter, and two fine portraits—a mezzotint by W. O. Burgess, after G. Harlowe, in which is depicted a handsome man in a Russian diplomatic uniform lined with fur; and an engraving by Anthony Carden, after J. Wright.
A man of the most varied attainments, Porter was justly described as ‘distinguished alike in arts, in diplomacy, in war, and in literature.’ He was a splendid horseman, excelled in field sports, and possessed the art of ingratiating himself with people of every rank in life. Unlike some popular favourites, he was the idol of his own domestic circle.[Porter's Works in the British Museum Library, where are also the descriptive sketches of several of his pictures, including ‘Seringapatam,’ the ‘Siege of Acre,’ and the ‘Battle of Alexandria;’ Gent. Mag. 1842, ii. 98–9; Annual Register, 1842, p. 267; Times, 28 May 1842; Bristol Mercury, 21 May 1842; Athenæum, 1850, p. 355; Art Journal, 1850, p, 276; Dibdin's Reminiscences of a Literary Life, ii. 143 sq.; Hall's Memories, p. 128; Roget's ‘Old’ Water-colour Society; Chambers's Book of Days; Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors, 1816, p. 281; the Pantheon of the Age; Michaud's Biographie Universelle; Redgrave's Dict. of English Artists; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Literature; Journal of the Society of Arts, 2 Aug. 1895; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 185, viii. 364, 526, 576, 4th ser. xi. 177, 5th ser. iv. 370, v. 16, 6th ser. xi. 330, 7th ser. vii. 312; Memorial to the Porter Family in Bristol Cathedral; Ker Porter Correspondence in the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps at Thirlestane House, Cheltenham.]