Brutal captains, dishonest pursers and an inefficient Board doling out inedible rations to a drunken crew … this was once the traditional image of the 18th-century British Navy. Yet how could this regime have given rise to the greatest sea power in the world, glorious victor in a succession of conflicts including Quiberon Bay and the Battle of Havana?
In this ground-breaking social history, Nicholas Rodger explodes the Victorian myth of the Georgian Navy as a ‘floating hell’. Focusing mainly on the period of the Seven Years’ War, he draws on ships’ musters and pursers’ accounts to reveal a highly organised fighting force that was also a society in miniature. Rodger shows that surprisingly few men deserted, that volunteers far exceeded impressed men, that captains were loath to flog and that the Navy Board responded promptly to complaints. For penniless recruits, the Navy offered a decent wage, a uniform and even a pension. It was also to a large extent a meritocracy, providing the opportunity for competent sailors to rise to become petty officers, with a few even reaching high command.
Placing naval history within its wider context, Rodger shows how the Navy was a world apart, with its own traditions, dress and language, but also how these customs mirrored British society in general. His lively account introduces us to the everyday reality of life at sea, from a typical list of livestock on board (a goat, half a dozen sheep, four hogs and thirteen ducks) to the crew who complained that they had to ‘creep on our hands and knees to our hammocks’ since the ship was so small. For anyone interested in the navy of Nelson or the fiction of Patrick O’Brian, this is an absorbing and entertaining ship’s-eye view.
Michael Prodger, art writer and literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph, sets out to restore the reputation of British naval art.
The Navy, and especially the Georgian Navy, occupies a place of honour in the popular imagination. However, the art that celebrates its achievements in battle and exploration sits on a much lower critical rung. It is a view put harshly in 1936 by Geoffrey Callender, the first director of the National Maritime Museum and therefore, supposedly, an indulgent judge: ‘marine pictures are so far removed from the main stream of the history of art as hardly to deserve inclusion in the efforts of mankind to hold up the mirror to nature: in short, are not Art at all, in the true sense of the word’. Since the National Maritime Museum is the nation’s oldest public gallery and alone holds some four thousand oil paintings as well as tens of thousands of drawings and prints, that is a lot of non-art.
Callender was, however, right, up to a point. The traditional art-historical hierarchy has history painting – in its purest form, inspirational classical scenes – as the noblest manifestation, with portraiture beneath it and still-life, genre painting, landscapes and marine pictures bumping along the bottom. He was right too, in that the greatest artists, both Continental and British, by and large steered clear of the sea.
If marine pictures do hold up a mirror then it is to reflect the pragmatism of life at sea. Much of our maritime art is less concerned with the grandeur of nation-defining battles than with the nitty-gritty of the sailor’s existence that lay behind conflict, colonisation and trade. This is a curiously British phenomenon and can be traced back to our sea painters’ founding fathers. In 1672 Charles II invited two celebrated Dutch marine specialists, Willem van de Velde, father and son, to come to England and paint for him. They were given a studio in Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich and set to work. It was from them that a series of native artists – Peter Monamy and Dominic Serres, for example – took their cue. Indeed, nearly 200 years later Turner would stand in front of a mezzotint by Van De Velde the Younger and exclaim: ‘This made me a painter.’
But we imported not just Dutch painters but a second tradition too, that of the kermesse and the tavern scene championed by the likes of Adriaen van Ostade, Adriaen Brouwer, Jan Steen and David Teniers. What happened in British art is that the two combined to give a distinct new genre, a maritime demotic – scenes of the life of the below-decks sailor. It was not, of course, the only subject, but while other nations painted portraits of their great naval commanders, panoramas of battles at sea and of the places their ships sailed, the fascination with the human side of ships was distinctively ours.
It is this same fascination that is the real topic of both N. A. M. Rodger’s The Wooden World and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels. The historical authenticity of their books is both informed and confirmed by the nation’s marine art. Rodger’s histories are often said to be key in dispelling the myth of the Navy as a regime based on ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’, and a look at the art of the period makes it clear that ships were communities based on far less extreme principles. A system structured by fear could never have been as effective as was the Navy, and the images left by amateur sailor-artists show instead a well-ordered and often convivial world. There are depictions of floggings but there are more of officers off watch reading, drinking and disputing; young midshipmen studying their books; sailors shaving and playing music or even hanging on to a canon to dangle a fishing line into the sea.
Of course, shore leave offered different temptations. Port life as a riotous Jack Tar-world of heavy drinking and uninhibited sex was memorably caricatured by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) in a series of bawdy and occasionally pornographic cartoons. His irreverence was not restricted to the lower orders however; he also poked fun at Emma Hamilton, the first lady of the fleet, showing her being ogled as an artists’ nude model, while his fellow satirist James Gillray lampooned her as a grossly overweight Dido lamenting her one-eyed Aeneas’ departure for sea.
Audiences expected edification as well as titillation from their marine pictures. As the Navy pushed back the boundaries of the known world artists were there to record the new discoveries. When the Royal Society sponsored Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage in 1768 it specified that draughtsmen should be part of the company – alongside, of course, the botanist Joseph Banks, parts of whose character were used by O’Brian for Stephen Maturin. The best known of these explorer-painters is William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second Pacific voyage, and whose pictures of Table Mountain, Tahiti and Easter Island transmit a vivid sense of the awe and wonder these prelapsarian sights aroused in both the sailors and the public at home.
Of course, painting’s role also extended to the documentary – capturing not just the appearance of the Navy’s vessels but acting as contemporary war photographs do and attempting to transmit the reality of battle. The greatest British maritime picture though, was painted years after the event: Turner’s The Battle of Trafalgar, 1822-4, a heavily-romanticised sea-level view of sky-scraping boats, crashing masts, roaring guns and a sea frothing with fallen sailors. This is not the stately dance portrayed by many battle pictures, but a mêlée quite unlike anything experienced on land and one in which Turner wears his sympathy for the common sailor on his sleeve.
Turner was rare in treating such a subject. For most other ‘high’ artists portraiture was the extent of their involvement with naval life. The most famous, and infamous, commanders – Anson, Byng, Keppel, Hawke and, of course, Nelson – were public figures and were therefore the province of society painters; Reynolds, Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence and the like. The features of these sailors (including Thomas Cochrane, the model for Jack Aubrey) – the rudders of British maritime supremacy – were made familiar by a vigorous print-buying culture, just as their exploits were the stuff of every club and coffee-house conversation.
Maritime art will never be as lauded as other genres, but the unequalled richness and variety of Britain’s sea pictures is a reflection of the pride and fascination long exerted by our naval heritage and the men who founded it. Geoffrey Callender should have looked harder. He was wrong.