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Graham is shown seated on the right at a circular, white-covered table, facing forward but glancing sideways rather than outward, with a place-setting for dinner in front of him. Seated on the left in front of the table, with a place-setting under his left elbow, is a plainly attired man with his legs crossed, dressed all in black with a white collar and stockings, and black buckled shoes. His dress implies he is socially inferior to Graham but an educated man – perhaps a secretary or tutor – and it may be symbolic of this social difference that a salt-cellar lies on the table between them. A Black servant boy stands on the far right behind Graham, playing a pipe and tabor. Behind the table a standing man, presumably a hired singer, holds a sheet of music which bears the otherwise recorded song title 'Arragh my Judy'.
Only the pug and steward or cook on the left look directly out to the viewer: everyone else’s glance is oblique and remains within the picture. The cook's smile invites the spectator in, while he seems unaware that he is spilling gravy, though there is a napkin there to catch it. Hogarth has thus introduced elements of humour, but the painting has been tantalisingly enigmatic in its meaning ever since it became known.
In June 1741 Captain Graham, then commanding the 40-gun 'Lark', returned from a ten-month round trip convoying merchant ships to Turkey and back. He was exhausted and unwell on his return, but was immediately ordered to undertake other local duties off the Kent coast that he found uncongenial, though the exact details are not clear.
The painting appears to be part of a campaign by Graham's friends to help the Captain recover his health and spirits, or a record of their efforts to that end after his father's death in 1742.
It was first lent for exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 by the 5th Duke of Montrose, in whose family it remained since left by Captain Graham to his elder brother William, the 2nd Duke, in 1747. It only became famous from its general display in the National Maritime Museum from 1937, as part of its founding benefaction from Sir James Caird, who bought it from the 6th Duke in 1932.
Captain Lord George Graham (1715–1747), in His Cabin
oil on canvas
H 68.5 x W 88.9 cm