Thursday, June 15, 2017

Study of a sailor, c. 1800

Portrait study of a sailor, Robert Williams, 1797-1812.
British Museum.

This fantastic portrait study of a sailor is a great way to compare the stereotypical sailor of a caricature and the idealized sailor of a romantic mezzotint or historical painting to real life. It was done by Philip James de Loutherbourg, the artist who painted "The Battle of the First of June, 1794", studied in the blog earlier in the month.

The provenance note from the British Museum states that "Robert Williams was a Yeoman of the Sheets from Virginia who was promoted to Boatswain of the Osprey sloop on 26 November 1797. (letter from Mrs Sara Cutler, 26 June 2005, in dossier)." The handwritten note at the top of the image (I don't know if it's contemporary to when the image was painted or not) reads "Robt. Williams, boatswains Mate. Venorable once Sailed with Capt. Winthorpe.

Robert Williams certainly looks like a sailor. As in a caricature his hair is short, wavy, and full, with bangs in the front, falling to his shoulders in the back. Short whiskers curl beside his ears, stopping at the lobe. He wears a single-breasted blue jacket (or possibly a coat, since the collar and single-breasted cut are different than many jackets) with one button done up.

Around his neck he wears a voluminous red handkerchief, wrapped in such a way that you can't see the ends so it looks almost like a scarf. The neckline of his sweater ends around his collarbone, showing a hint of blue and white checked shirt underneath. He looks slightly away from the viewer with an ambiguous expression - a wonderful window into what a late 18th or early 19th century sailor actually looked like.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Battle of the First of June, 1794 (1795)

On June 1, 1794 the British and French forces clashed in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 nautical miles west of the island of Ushant, the culmination of a month-long campaign across the Bay of Biscay that included the capture of merchant ships, smaller warships, and two inconclusive fleet actions.
A French fleet under the command of Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse had sailed from Brest earlier in May to intercept a vital convoy of grain from the United States to France, and the British Channel Fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Howe had in turn sailed to confront the French. Neither side encountered the convoy, which reached Brest in safety, and instead the two fleets made contact on May 28.
Plan of Lord Howe's action off Ushant.
Ink and watercolor sketch by James Gillray, formerly attributed to Philip James de Loutherbourg. 

As Royal Museums Greenwich summarizes, "In the opening engagement Howe disabled the three-decker 'Révolutionnaire', 110 guns. On 29 May he cut the French line to leeward and for the next two days the fleets manoeuvred in fog and out of contact until Howe brought the French to full action and defeat on 1 June approximately 225 nautical miles (416 km) further west. Six French ships of the line were taken and one sunk."
The Battle of the First of June 1794. Oil on canvas.
Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, London, 1795.
Painter Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg celebrated this victory in his monumental 1795 painting, The Battle of the First of June, 1794 (originally exhibited in 1795 as Earl Howe's Victory over the French Fleet), the subject of today's post. As the curator's note for RMG states,
"Using man's heroic struggle against the sea itself to enhance the conflict of the opposing fleets, the artist's response is in the Romantic tradition, depicting both the dramatic and human nature of the event."
Several events unfold in the painting, whose composition is dominated by the fight between the flagships:

  • the duel between the opposing flagships "Queen Charlotte" on the left (100 guns, commanded by Howe) and "Montagne" on the right (120 guns, commanded by Villaret-Joyeuse)
  • the sinking of the "Vengeur du Peuple", port-broadside view, in the left background
  • the smoke the topsails of other ships
  • the attempts to rescue the crew of the Vengeur crew by other ships and an English boat in the right foreground
  • several more English boats rescuing drowning Frenchmen in the left foreground

The effect of the British fire shows in the confusion aboard the Montagne and the bodies falling from her gun ports. Meanwhile the Queen Charlotte has lost her fore-topmast, which resulted in her dropping astern of the Montagne and never managing to engage with the ship in the position as shown in the painting and thus capture the French flagship. The portrayal of this detail "reportedly led to disapproval of the picture by Lord Howe and more so by his Master of the Fleet, James Bowen.. The latter considered it a slur on the 'Queen Charlotte' on the grounds that the French flagship would not have escaped, had he managed to get alongside her in the way shown."
Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, self portrait. Oil on canvas. 1805-1810. 
De Loutherbourg was a Strasbourg-born painter and member of the French Academy who moved to London in 1771 at the request of actor David Garrick, where he worked as the scenic director at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane until 1785. He was an acclaimed theater designer and continued his success as a painter with a career in England as a Romantic landscape painter. His other famous nautical paintings include The Battle of Camperdown (1799).

Loutherbourg was elected to the Royal Academy in 1781 and exhibited there most years until his death in 1812. The Battle of the First of June is signed and dated 'P J de Loutherbourg RA 1795'.

The artist James Gillray assisted with the sketching and painting of the figures, and both men composed a number of sketches in preparation for the painting. Loutherbourg went to Portsmouth to view the prizes, and a surviving letter from 1808 states that he went on board the 'Sans Pareil' at least once. From the perspective of the student of maritime costume the studies show no more than indistinct figures in caps and jackets.
Leaf from a sketchbook, for the picture of Lord Howe's Victory, by Philip James de Loutherbourg. 1794.
Pen and black ink with grey wash, over graphite. British Museum.

Ships in battle, study for the painting of 'Lord Howe's Victory', by Philip James de Loutherbourg. 1794. 
Pen and black ink with grey wash, over graphite. British Museum.

Other related sketches in the collection of the British Museum by Gillray and Loutherbourg can be viewed here (sketches of ships with signal flags and a French buoy), here (study of the Queen Charlotte's rigging), here (study of a ship's bow), and here (study of  "Le Juste" and "L'Amerique").

Loutherbourg's painting was commissioned for issue as an engraving for £500, to be paired with his 1794 painting "'The Grand Attack on Valenciennes'". The paintings were sold into private hands after they were exhibited, and First of June was ultimately purchased by the Prince of Wales, becoming part of the Royal Collection. Upon the Prince's ascension as George IV in 1820 and removal to St. James's Palace the painting needed a pendant (a painting of a similar size and theme), which led to JMW Turner's only royal commission, his 1824 painting of the Battle of Trafalgar. This controversial work was delivered in 1824. Turner's painting was poorly received by the public for its inaccuracy and lack of a display of proper heroic action, and the King ordered the removal of both works from St James's to the Naval Gallery at Greenwich Hospital in 1829.

Loutherbourg's painting is not a perfectly accurate depiction of the battle it portrays, but unlike Turner's painting - where the shooting of Nelson disappears into a wild riot of canvas and carnage - the image is a decidedly traditional, patriotic, and heroic image, with considerable care taken in the accuracy of the details, such as which flags the ships were flying.

Amidst the grandeur of the battle the foreground is filled with men in smallboats struggling against the sea to help the men in it, demonstrating compassion to the defeated enemy. In the extreme right of the picture is an English ship, in port-bow view, possibly the "Brunswick", with figures French sailors clinging to a mast.
In the middle of the painting two more boats of English sailors are pulling men aboard. The sailors are dressed in a variety of garments, including blue and white trousers, blue checked and white shirts, black felt round hats, blue jackets with open mariner's cuffs, and red waistcoats. In the boat on the right in this detail notice the man to the furthest right in the boat and the man towards the bow in what look like straw hats - a very interesting detail.
On the right an English lieutenant stands in another boat while his crew help the drowning French sailors aboard. The English sailors are largely in their shirtsleeves. A man in the background wears a white shirt and red waistcoat, while a sailor helping a French sailor aboard wears a blue jacket and white trousers. Several others wear white shirts and black handkerchiefs. with waistcoats in white or tan. One man in shirtsleeves reaching overboard to grab a French sailor's hand has short pale hair, clearly curled at the bottom in a bob.