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.