Review of Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting, ed. Eleanor Hughes
The Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2016, £45
This fine book is the catalogue from the excellent exhibition of British marine painting that was held at the National Maritime Museum in 2016. As we have come to expect from this publisher, the book is beautifully produced and illustrated, with an authoritative and erudite text which draws out the significance of many works that have been hidden away in obscure galleries and homes for many years.
The maritime history of this nation is central to our understanding of ourselves. Many hold that our island status has preserved our independence, which goes along with the widely shared belief that no-one has successfully invaded this country since 1066. Neither of these statements is remotely true, but without question our maritime status has been of critical importance throughout our history. From the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to Hitler's failure to launch a successful invasion in 1942, via everything in between, our dependence on the sea which surrounds us to both provide protection and allow us to communicate and trade with the rest of the world has been total. Not unlike the case of the Dutch, who also had a high reliance upon their seafaring prowess, one by-product of this political and social phenomenon was its cultural impact, giving artists a subject matter which connected with many of their prospective patrons, namely the wealthy merchants and naval personnel who owned and sailed the ships themselves.
This connection with the Dutch runs deep. Painting in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries evolved into what might be termed a collection of genres, each of which appealed to different kinds of patron. Scenes of everyday life, church interiors, still lifes, trompe-l'oeil paintings and maritime scenes all had their own particular expert painters, who generally produced work only in that genre. The first chapter of this book is devoted to the Van de Veldes, a father and son who gained fame in the Netherlands and who in 1672 arrived in London with a glowing reputation. They quickly established a studio at Greenwich and began producing large quantities of marine paintings of different shapes and sizes. One of the finest paintings produced by the son, Willem the Younger, The English Ship 'Royal Sovereign' with a Royal Yacht in a Light Air, is reproduced as a full page here, and its history and artistic significance are fully explained. This provides a perfect introduction both to the subject of English marine painting and to the political climate in which such works were created.
The picture was completed in 1702, the year after the ship was launched. At the time she was the largest vessel in the Royal Navy, with a hundred guns and covered with gilded carvings representing scenes of mythical and nautical significance. As a warship, she was a symbol of the power and might of the navy as a whole, while the manner in which she was portrayed by Van de Velde laid the foundation for how artists sought to portray marine vessels for years to come. The symbolism contained within the painting is both striking and powerful. The ship is seen from behind, with the rich carving visible and the gun-ports on the side open as if ready for battle. We can read this as a metaphor for the navy, or even the country itself. Expertly constructed, beautifully formed, manned by a highly visible, efficient force of sailors, this powerful ship is ready to take on, and obviously defeat, any enemy. In 1702 that enemy was both France and Spain, in a conflict now known as the War of the Spanish Succession. The only engagement in which The Royal Sovereign took part was the Battle of Vigo Bay, which was a resounding success for the Anglo-Dutch alliance. As is often the case, the more you know about the subject of a painting the more you can understand the artist's decisions. In this case, the fact that the ship shares the name of an earlier vessel which was also the largest and best-armed ship in the Royal Navy in her day leads to the conclusion that we are meant to see the ship as representative of royal power and strength. One wonders if Van de Velde was familiar with Henry King's poem written in the 1640s about the earlier vessel, which contains these lines:
Great Wonder of the Time! Whose Form unites In one aspect Two warring Opposites, Delight and Horrour
Although this painting was certainly not the first to conflate the image of the ship with the notions of kingship and the state, it proved to be the forerunner in the art of this country in displaying maritime subjects in a manner that transcended a simple visual record. Almost from this point onwards, it is nearly impossible to disentangle maritime images from their intended symbolic significance in English art.
The exhibition for which this book is the catalogue was naturally held at Greenwich, and equally naturally, there is a chapter which concentrates on the role that Greenwich played within the maritime genre. Just as ships like the Royal Sovereign could be made representative of powerful ideas, so too could particular places, and none more so than Greenwich itself. In Tudor times it was the site of a great royal palace (Queen Elizabeth was born there), but after the Restoration Charles II began improving the facilities, ordering the construction of the Royal Observatory to support sea navigation with accurate astronomical observations. Later, Queen Mary ordered the building of a hospital for wounded and disabled sailors. This was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and the interior was gloriously decorated by Sir James Thornhill, with an overarching theme of the success of the maritime nation under the Hanoverian dynasty. Therefore it is no surprise to find that the image of Greenwich itself could also become representative of the maritime nation and its aspirations.
However, it is a work located within Greenwich which receives detailed analysis at the start of the following chapter. A fire had destroyed the seamen's chapel in 1779 and after it was rebuilt, a new altarpiece was commissioned. The result was St. Paul Shaking the Viper from His Hand after the Shipwreck by Benjamin West. The chapter contains a fascinating explanation of the painting itself and its wider significance within the context of eighteenth-century British art. Thornhill, the creator of the immense decorative Greenwich murals, had painted the same subject in St. Paul's Cathedral, Wren's masterpiece, which is, itself, a potent symbol of rebirth after disaster. Although St. Paul himself has little significance to sailors, West clearly references Thornhill's work, and by showing the part of the story in which the saint has survived potential disaster rather than the disaster itself, he mirrors the fate of the chapel and of St. Paul's, both successfully rebuilt after their respective fires.
It is noted in the text that this work presents us with a problem when considering the place of maritime art within the context of eighteenth-century British culture. While the painting gives us a legitimate subject, depicting a shipwreck with its attendant maritime landscape and sailors, West manages –through the oblique references to Thornhill and St. Paul's Cathedral— to draw attention away to London, and its reconstruction and rebirth as an international centre of trade and commerce. We are thus confronted with a work which is clearly appropriate to a position behind the altar in a seamen's chapel, but which prompts the congregation of sailors to consider their city in the light of its expanding political and commercial success.
The following chapters deal with several different aspects of maritime painting, culminating in a fascinating discussion about women and the portrayal of domesticity within the genre. As with the rest of the book, this final section provides detailed insights into what, at first, seem like conventional works but which are revealed to be more complex and interesting. The painting which is analysed at the start sets the scene beautifully.
Captain Richard Grindall and His Family, painted in 1800 by Richard Livesay, is an apparently unremarkable family portrait of a serving naval captain, his wife and children. However, the picture is a multi-layered work which reveals, yet again, that seemingly ordinary portraits can be an open window through which we see clearly the hopes, aspirations, and realities of their subjects' lives. This is a group portrait which shows a united family: the captain has his arm around his eldest son, his wife is seated nearby with two other sons on either side, and the fourth son leans against his younger brother. From this figure on the left hand side, to the eldest son on his father's right, there is a continuous line, each family member in physical contact with the next. The family is inexorably connected together, united in purpose, clearly supporting one another and, by extension, their country.
The portrait would have hung in the family home, and was representative of their aspirations but also their sense of duty. The father had faithfully served his country as a Royal Naval captain, and his wife had dutifully produced four healthy sons, who would, in turn, serve their nation in the Navy. Behind them is a scene from a sea battle, which could be one in which the captain took part, but which also represents the future threat to the sons. In fact, two did die at sea, while serving as young midshipmen. The contented family scene thus transforms itself into an allegory of nationalistic ambition in which we see the patriarch leading his sons towards noble sacrifice, like the king with his loyal subjects: a statement about the transient nature of life, but also the permanence of the benign State which the family uphold.
This is a beautifully produced book which reveals that the maritime genre offers much more than was previously thought. It is not just a visual record of contemporary seafaring vessels and events; the authors clearly show, through many fine examples, that the cultural heritage portrayed was complex, and deeply indebted to the artistic conventions and mores of the time. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in one of the pictures in the exhibition, The Capture of the Nuestra Senora de Cavadonga by the Centurion, 20 June 1743 by Samuel Scott. This is both a memorial of an event which the patron, Commodore George Anson, wished to record, and also a depiction of ships, sea, sky and smoke which the artist has constructed to enhance the dramatic effect. It is therefore little different from any other genre painting in which the artist places figures within a landscape for effect rather than attempting to portray reality.
The event was the capture of a Spanish treasure ship by Commodore George Anson in 1743, a relatively obscure occurrence during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). As was the convention at the time, much of the prize money went to the captain, who in turn gave a significant sum to his brother, Thomas, who spent it renovating the family seat at Shugborough. It was there that the painting was to be hung, in the main entrance hall.
So, at first sight, this is a work whose main function is to celebrate and honour the family in whose house it is to be placed. Yet the visual language that Scott employs adds dramatic detail while unifying the image as a composition. It becomes not only a record of a real event, but a re-interpretation based upon the painter's artistic demands. This is most clearly demonstrated in the positioning of the two ships. The English ship is the centrepiece, completely surrounded by smoke, some black and red, some white, showing that she has fired her cannons. Alongside her, the Spanish ship has a broken mast and sails. She seems much larger, for Scott has positioned her nearer the viewer to create the impression of size. In fact the Centurion was a warship of major proportions and heavily outgunned the opposition. So here is an image which plays as a symbol of the war itself, with the seemingly weaker vessel overcoming a more powerful opponent, when in fact the opposite was true. It also demonstrates that the artist can have control over the medium in which he is working to create an illusory harmony which appears to be in line with the facts, while not actually being bound by them.
This is a fascinating, well-illustrated book which reveals that there is much to discover in seemingly ordinary, conventional marine painting. It reaffirms an idea that is currently gaining traction: that eighteenth century English, and indeed British, art was not the backwater that some twentieth century art historians would have us believe, but that the better artists absorbed ideas from previous generations and their European counterparts, and tried to push the boundaries of figurative art. The many examples in this book show just how well they succeeded.--Paul Flux