Portrait of James Fitzjames, Esq, Royal Navy

While looking for drawings made by officers during the Euphrates Expedition, I found Lieutenant Robert Cockburn’s watercolours in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. There were no images in their online catalogue, just descriptive titles.
To my astonishment, one of those titles was ‘James Fitzjames, Esq, Royal Navy’.
I immediately requested a picture to be taken and after a few months of waiting, I am thrilled to finally share the portrait here.

James Fitzjames, Esq, Royal Navy
Sketches in Syria 1835-1836 by Robert Cockburn
Mount: 18 × 14 inches (45.7 × 35.6 cm)
Image: 7 × 3 3/4 inches (17.8 × 9.5 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
46053 – B1977.14.22128

Many thanks to Senior Curatorial Assistant Charlotte Lefland who kindly took these pictures of the watercolour in its mount for me.


This is the first and so far only known portrait of Fitzjames in colour, and we can now see that he had a ginger beard and what looks like greyish blue or green eyes.
In John Linnell’s side profile sketch of Fitzjames made in the 1840’s, he has light blue eyes. If Fitzjames had brown eyes, the brown eyes in Cockburn’s other portraits are a darker brown, while unless the colour has faded, Fitzjames’ eyes look lighter. With a variety of colours at his disposal, Cockburn seems to have striven for a realistic likeness.
This is a comparison of blue eyes (portrait number 46022 – B1977.14.22097), brown eyes (portrait number 46042 – B1977.14.22117), and Fitzjames’ eyes in Cockburn’s portraits:

Fitzjames is wearing an Arab costume. Third in command James Bucknall Estcourt writes in a December 1835 letter to his sister that “most of us [are wearing] the men’s clothing of this country”, so Fitzjames was not unique in doing this.
The jacket looks to be a short djellaba. The tassels on the jacket are either decorative or for closing it. He has the qob (hood) over his head, underneath which he is wearing a tarboosh (also known as fez). Underneath the djellaba he is wearing a light blue shirt or tunic. The trousers are called sirwal (also known as Harem pants in the West). He is wearing white stockings and the red pointy slippers are called balgha.
The costume looks like a hybrid Middle Eastern/North African outfit. The hat, trousers and slippers are worn in various varieties throughout the Middle East and Asia. 
The jacket with pointy hood originates from Morocco/North Africa. [I am no expert on Middle Eastern/North African clothing, so do correct me if I’m wrong.]

In his right hand Fitzjames is holding what looks to be a field telescope in a leather carrying case with a strap. [Thanks for identifying it, Peter Carney]
This makes sense because I think this portrait was probably made in May 1835, when Fitzjames went on a surveying trip with Cockburn in Turkey.
Chesney says that “whilst the Expedition was delayed at the mouth of the Orontes, Lieutenant Murphy, assisted by Mr. Fitzjames, Lieutenant Cockburn, and Mr. Thompson, surveyed and mapped the coast from Lattakia to the extremity of the Bay of Scanderoon, in order to connect it with Admiral Beaufort’s previous survey, &c. ”
Lieutenant Cleaveland records in his journal “On May 7 [1835], Mr. Fitzjames set off for Scanderoon to join the surveying party under Lieutenant Murphy.”

A Fitzjames selfportrait

While examining Fitzjames’ Euphrates Expedition drawings I noticed a familiar figure in his depiction of the road outside the town of Chendareez (also spelled Gindareez or Chindarees). This figure is the exact same as Cockburn’s Fitzjames portrait. The Chendareez drawing was made after Cockburn made the portrait, as it was in October 1835 that Fitzjames was responsible for the transport from Azaz to Chendareez. Fitzjames inserted himself into his drawing, based on Cockburn’s portrayal of him.
Edward Charlewood was in charge of the transport from Chendareez to Murad Pacha, assisted by interpreters Dervish Ali (William Elliot) and Yusuf Sader. It appears that Fitzjames did some more copying of Cockburn’s work: the man next to him is an exact copy of Cockburn’s portrait of Dervish Ali.

Left: detail of Dervish Ali, and Mr. Geoffrey
Sketches in Syria 1835-1836 by Robert Cockburn
Image: 9 1/4 × 7 inches (23.5 × 17.8 cm)
Mount: 18 × 14 inches (45.7 × 35.6 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
46054 – B1977.14.22129

The artist: Robert Cockburn

Robert Cockburn (4 May 1812 – 21 May 1836) was a Lieutenant of the Royal Artillery. He obtained his post on the Euphrates Expedition through the recommendation of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who was an army officer and politician. Doctor Helfer refers to Cockburn as ‘Lieutenant B. Cockburn’, so this could mean that he went by Bob or Bobby instead of Robert. This would make it easier to differentiate himself from his father who had the same first name.
William Ainsworth describes him as “a most amiable and promising young officer of the Royal Artillery, who had always looked kindly after the men who belonged to his branch of the service.” Chesney also calls him an “amiable and most promising young officer”, who “as the assistant of Lieutenant Murphy, R.E., took an active part in the surveys of the coast, &c., and also in the more serious task of carrying a line of levels, for a distance of 140 miles and 26 chains, from the Mediterranean to the principal depot of the Expedition on the River Euphrates.”

The album of sketches is prefaced by an anonymous introduction, describing Cockburn as being “gifted with rare ability, accomplishing with ease whatever he undertook, witty and attractive, and of unusually commanding presence. He was held in high regard alike by equals and inferiors, and beloved by those who knew him best.
A life of the highest promise was cut off in its opening.
His body was recovered, and buried near Annah, beside the Great River.”

He was born in Edinburgh to Robert Cockburn, Esq (1780-1844), a wine merchant whose brand is still available today, and Mary Cockburn née Duff (1788-1858) who is known for having been the first love of Lord Byron.

Francis Gribble writes in The love affairs of Lord Byron (1910):
“First on the list of early loves comes little Mary Duff of Aberdeen. She was one of Byron’s Scotch cousins, though a very distant one; and there is hardly anything else to be said, except that he was a child and she was a child in their kingdom by the sea. Only no wind blew out of a cloud chilling her. Her mother made a second marriage—described by Byron as a “faux pas” because it was socially disadvantageous—and left the city; and the two children never met again.

It was of no importance, of course. They were only a little more than seven when they were separated. But Byron was proud of his precocity, and liked to recall it, and to wonder if any other lover had ever been equally precocious. “I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff,” he wrote in a fragment of a diary at the age of twenty-five; and he reminded himself how he used to lie awake, picturing her, and how he urged his nurse to write her a love letter on his behalf, and how they sat together—“gravely making love in our way”—while Mary expressed pity for her younger sister Helen, for not having an admirer too. Above all, he reminded himself of the shock which he felt, years afterwards, when the sudden communication of a piece of news revived the recollection of the idyll.

“My mother,” he proceeded, “used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me, one day, ‘Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr. C——.’ And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much that, after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject—to me—and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance.”
And then again:
“My misery, my love for that girl were so violent that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder stroke—it nearly choked me—to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of nearly everybody.”

It is a well-known story, and one can add nothing to it beyond the fact that Mary Duff’s husband was Mr. Cockburn, the wine merchant, and that she lived quite happily with him, and that we are entitled to think of her whenever we drink a glass of Cockburn’s port.”

His death in the Wreck of the Tigris
On 21 May 1836 the Euphrates and Tigris were caught in a hurricane in which the Tigris sank, taking 20 out of a total of 34 crewmembers with her.
One of those lost was Robert Cockburn.
When the hurricane started, he was busy laying down maps in the fore-cabin, accompanied by assistant surgeon Andrew Staunton who recounts how disaster struck: “The day had been sultry and the atmosphere then felt as if loaded with sulphur, the sky also assumed a turbid and bloody appearance, when the vessel suddenly began to roll, and a swelling sea washed in at the windows of the cabin, whence, unfortunately, the frames had been previously removed for the benefit of air. We endeavoured in vain to replace them, but the water overcame every resistance and began rapidly to fill the cabin. Lieutenant Cockburn and myself now proceeded on deck for assistance, where an appalling sight presented itself, the rolling clouds of sand obscuring for a moment every object, then a vivid flash lighting up for an instant the anxious yet resolute countenances of the crew.”
Chesney reports that “Lieutenant Cockburn, the Messrs. Staunton, and some of the men, made ineffectual attempts to keep out the water, for the fate of the vessel was already decided ; and the forepart of the deck being under water, Lieutenant Lynch came to report that the “Tigris” was sinking, and the word was immediately passed for all to save themselves.”

Unfortunately, Cockburn could not swim and thus had almost no chance of survival. Doctor Helfer recounted the following:
“I had special reason for reverent thankfulness to Providence for so manifestly protecting me and my wife. For on this day we were to have lunched on board the Tigris, and to have gone with her ; we frequently did so, and it was a change as agreeable to us as to the officers of the Tigris.  But, owing to the hurry in taking in wood, the men had not found time to bring the boat for us, and, for the same reason, Lieutenant Cockburn had missed the opportunity of asking leave to make the voyage to-day on board the Euphrates. This insignificant circumstance saved our lives, but cost him his. He was the only one of the officers who could not swim, and he had, in consequence, a great aversion to water. A little while before, in a moment of ill-humour, he resolved to leave the Expedition. Pauline [Doctor Helfer’s wife], to whom he mentioned his intention,  represented to him that it would be very inopportune, and persuaded him to remain ; she was therefore all the more grieved at his death.”

Henry Richardson adds this note to his Loss of the Tigris poem (1840): “Lieutenant Cockburn, Royal Artillery, was one of the deplored sufferers. Great interest had been made for his appointment. He joined, and soon after left the expedition from ill health ; but his mother, who is a lady of superior mind, on his getting better, urged his return ; he did so and perished, and she consequently is inconsolable. When last seen, he was holding on by a carronade.”

Euphrates Expedition Drawings
Fortunately, Cockburn’s drawings were apparently on the Euphrates and have thus survived.
The Yale Center for British Art acquired these drawings from their founder, Yale alumnus and art collector Paul Mellon (1907-1999). He acquired them from the English historian Rupert Gunnis’ (1899-1965) estate in 1966. The provenance before this time is as yet unclear.

by Fabiënne Tetteroo – 16 March 2022