Fine art, Maritime Art Greenwich, Oil paintings

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A two-decker and a frigate running Into the Thames off Gravesend

Fine art

Object connections:

Collection Fine art, Maritime Art Greenwich, Oil paintings
Gallery locationNot on display

Object details:

Object ID BHC1836
Description The view looks west, up the Thames, with Gravesend on the left and Tilbury Fort in the right distance. A naval two-decker, probably of about 60 guns, is shown on the left with wind on the port beam, letting her fore-sail sheets fly as she slows down and prepares to anchor: on the right a frigate is running further in on a finer reach. Both ships fly the red ensign. Two small cutter-rigged hoys proceed downstream centre and right, and a lugger on the left. The picture was acquired (in 1957) and for long mistakenly identified as showing ships running into Harwich, with the Landguard Fort on the right, probably because the distinctive 17th-century gateway of Tilbury Fort is not visible in this view. However, in 1989 it was finally noticed that the ships anchored in the centre distance have high 'coach' poops showing that they are Indiamen: these did not generally use Harwich but routinely anchored off Gravesend as the main point in the lower Thames for final embarkation of passengers before going round to the Downs, or early disembarkation for London before they ran up to Blackwall and the other London docks to unload. The town view is also consistent with Gravesend and Landguard Point opposite Harwich (even though the Fort no longer exists) is also considerably higher ground than at Tilbury. Warships also came into the Thames for various reasons, not least when sent in for refit in the dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford. The composition and large scale of this work would not be unusual in a naval battle-piece, where an artist might be attempting to show two battle lines coming into action from astern, but is unusual and dramatic for such a calm subject. Everything focuses towards the centre, with the narrowing river represented as both a transitional zone between the illimitable realm of sea and sky and the certainties of the land, and the commercial highway of shipping in and out of London, the nation's capital and principal port, invisible beyond the horizon. The inclusion of warships and the fort, the almost hidden allusion to the reach of Britain's London-centred commerce and power represented by the Indiamen, and the small-scale local traffic coming down river, all subtly suggest the significance of maritime affairs in British life and an almost unselfconscious national mastery of them at many levels. At the same time, both as a mixed-shipping coastal view and in its proportion of sky to sea, separated by a low horizon, the painting shows how confidently Brooking transfomed the inheritance of Dutch marine art into a distinctively British idiom. Most of his extant paintings date to the last six years of his career and are principally marine subject-matter. His reputation as a marine artist was well established by 1755 and although his stylistic range shows the influences of Simon de Vlieger and Willem van de Velde the Younger, his approach was uncompromisingly individualistic. His careful attention to detail also evinces an informed knowledge of maritime practice and naval architecture. This painting is signed but undated, though presumably of the mid-1750s.
Date made circa 1753-59

Artist/Maker Brooking, Charles
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Painting: 1170 x 1675 mm; Frame: 1370 x 1870 x 95 mm
  • A two-decker and a frigate running Into the Thames off Gravesend (BHC1836)
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