George James Perceval (1794-1874) was the third and eldest surviving son of Charles Perceval, 1st Baron Arden and 3rd Earl of Egmont. George's father was a Tory politician and courtier and among many other offices, he was one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (1788-1800). George's grandfather was 1st Lord of the Admiralty (1763-1764). Young George was born in Admiralty House and christened at the Admiralty church of St Martin's-in-the-Fields on 17th April 1794.
With this background it is not surprising that 11-year old George Perceval was amongst the many young men who sought billets in the fleet about to sail for what would become known as the Battle of Trafalgar. On 30th July 1805, George mustered as a Volunteer 1st Class in the 74-gun H.M.S. Orion under Captain Edward Codrington. Codrington took a close interest in his latest protégé asking his parents to wait until the ship was ready to receive him and he had a steady, gentlemanlike midshipman to control his mess. Codrington also advised against using a London tailor and not to supply George with more clothes can could be stowed in the chest he was allowed. He also warned Lady Arden against raising her hopes as to George's attainments, and reminding her that his manners will be those of a sailor, not of a gentleman ashore, and wishing she had not sent George money, as Codrington wished to keep him on a par with his less wealthy peers. Meanwhile, George wrote cheerfully to his mother eight days before the Battle of Trafalgar that he hoped to be home for Christmas if his head was not knocked off.
On 21st October 1805, Codrington's Orion was at the rear of Nelson's Weather Column and entered the battle two hours after Nelson had broken the line of the combined French and Spanish fleet. Orion engaged the French ship Swiftsure quickly forcing her surrender, then attacked the 112-gun Spanish flagship Principe de Asturias commanded by Rafael Hore, but broke off this assault to counter an attack by Louis-Antoine Infernet's Intrèpide which had been cut off by Nelson's manoeuvre. After the battle George was awarded £1 17s 8d in Prize Money, and a further Parliamentary Award of £4 12s 6d.
George took to life at sea and in December 1806 he joined the 74-gun H.M.S. Tigre under the command of Captain Ben Hallowell, an American Loyalist who was known as 'Nelson's Yankee', where he was rated midshipman on 9th June 1808 and where he continued to serve until November 1811, with a short return to the Orion in 1807 as part of the Expedition to Egypt. Tigre's gunroom, where the midshipmen messed, was something of a nursery of the nobility of England.
When the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States broke out, George Perceval was ashore and unemployed. He hurriedly joined the 36-gun frigate Maidstone which sailed for America. In the words of James' Naval History "Maidstone and her boats were very active at the beginning of August" and among the captures were two American schooners, the Polly and the Morning Star which were burnt in a creek called Baily's Mistake in the Bay of Fundy.
On 18th April 1814, he received his commission as lieutenant in H.M.S. Chesapeake in Halifax, Nova Scotia where she lay after her catpure off Boston. A month later Perceval moved to the newly-launched 38-gun frigate Tenedos under Captain Hyde Parker where he served until March 1815. In August and September 1814, Perceval took part in an expedition up the Penobscot River in New England, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Slade on H.M.S. Bulwark which captured the towns of Hamden and Bangor on 3rd September. They also captured or destroyed a score of American ships, including the 26-gun U.S.S. Adams which had taken refuge 26 miles up the river, fought and won the Battle of Hampden, and occupied Catine, Maine until the Treaty of Ghent brought the war to a close. In January 1815, however, before news of the peace treaty reached America, Tenedos and other ships were watching off Sandy Hook, the anchorage off Long Island, for the U.S.S. President and U.S.S. Macedonian which were preparing sail for a raid on British shipping. During the night of the 13th, the British squadron was blown offshore in a snow storm and the Americans escaped, but after a long chase were caught and the President was captured and towed into Bermuda. In May 1815, Perceval moved again, into the 74-gun Bulwark, but the war was over.
In July 1816, Perceval received a commission as Commander of the bomb vessel Infernal, part of the Anglo-Dutch fleet which under the command of Admiral Lord Exmouth bombarded Algiers in the campaign to end piracy on the Barbary Coast. A fearful onslaught took place on the evening and into the night of 26/27th September, and the next morning the Dey, not realising his attackers were nearly out of ammunition, agreed to release the British Consul, several thousand slaves and to return ransom money. Of Perceval's crew of 67, two crew were killed and 16 wounded including most of his officers.
In the 1840s when the Naval General Service medal was introduced Perceval applied for and was granted clasps for Trafalgar, a boat action on 1st November 1809 while serving in H.M.S. Tigre, and for the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816.
With the end of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Perceval saw little more action at sea and he owed his subsequent promotion to his longevity, being promoted Rear-Admiral in 1851, Vice-Admiral in 1857 and full Admiral in 1863. He was elected Member of Parliament for Surrey West in 1837, until the death of his father in 1840, when he entered the House of Lords. He married Jane, daughter of John Hornby of The Hook, Hampshire in 1819, but they had no children. He succeeded his father as 3rd Baron Arden in 1840, and his cousin, John James, as 6th Earl of Egmont in December 1841. Perceval purchased the Cowdray Estate in 1843 from the daughters of William Stephen Poyntz. His wife died in 1870 and George survived her by four years when he was succeeded in the earldom by a nephew. He is buried in a family vault at St Luke's, Charlton. His death was marked by an obituary in The New York Times of 5th August 1874.
It seems highly probable that this painting was commissioned by the family to mark Perceval's entry into the Royal Navy.