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The wreck of the 'Halsewell', Indiaman, 1786

Recent acquisitions

Object connections:

Collection Recent acquisitions, Fine art, Oil paintings
ExhibitionsTraders: The East India Company and Asia
User collections Textiles: supplying cloth to the world by NMMExhibitions
Gallery locationTraders Gallery (Floor plans)
PeopleDepiction: Pierce, Richard

Object details:

Object ID ZBA4537
Description This small oil by Stothard shows the roundhouse - the passenger saloon under the poop - of the outward-bound East Indiaman 'Halsewell' in the early hours of 6 January 1786, after a storm drove her ashore at 2 a.m. across a hollow or cave in the cliffs at Seacombe, between St Albans Head and Anvil Point, Dorset. This is the original picture, painted early in 1786 for the engraver and publisher Edmund Scott, who reproduced it as a high-quality subscription print of similar size (12 x 14 inches: see PAH0504). Unfortunately the print itself is undated and as a subscription issue may not have been further advertised: they often took some time to make, however, and it is not yet clear exactly when it appeared. Stothard’s source was 'A Circumstantial Narrative of the Loss of the Halsewell', published by the two senior ship’s officers who escaped, the second and third mates Henry Meriton and John Rogers. This first appeared on 21 January 1786, only fifteen days after the wreck, but Stothard also had direct advice from Meriton whom Scott recruited to supply it. These two officers were the last survivors to leave and reach safety on a ledge in the hollow cliffs, where well over 100 of the crew and troops on board managed to take refuge, though many were washed off before day brought rescue to the remaining seventy: the total loss was about 170. The 'Halsewell' was also carrying seven lady passengers, including the two daughters and two nieces of the captain, Richard Pierce, whose nephew and first mate, Thomas Burston, was also lost in the incident. None of the women were able to escape and were among about 100 who died in the ship, which disintegrated within two hours of striking. Pierce heroically remained with them and is shown on the right, seated between and comforting his daughters. Meriton and Rogers stand on the left, on the point of departure, as calm observers of the group of largely female figures on the floor. In Stothard’s composition and brushwork these show a powerful diagonal surge up from left to right, suggesting the waves outside beating the hull against the cliffs. This is emphasized by the tilted verticals of the cabin and the distraught female figure leaning against the right-hand bulkhead. Allowing for dramatic compression, the whole closely parallels the published account, with the women in various states of distress. Pierce looks up towards the brilliant lamp in the ceiling, which can also be read as the promise of Christian salvation shining through the darkness of approaching death. 'Mr Meriton, having previously cut several wax candles into pieces, and stuck them up in various parts of the roundhouse, and lighted up all the glass lanthorns he could find, took his seat… but observing that the poor ladies appeared parched and exhausted, he fetched a basket of oranges from some part of the roundhouse, and prevailed on some of them to refresh themselves by sucking a little of the juice. At this time they were all tolerably composed, except Miss Mansell, who was in hysteric fits on the floor of the roundhouse.' (She is presumably the figure in the left foreground.) Meriton in fact left before Rogers, who had a brief conversation with Pierce on the stern gallery, when they agreed it was impossible for the women to escape: they then ‘returned to the roundhouse, and Mr Rogers hung up the lamp, and Captain Pierce, with his great coat on, sat down between his two daughters, and struggled to suppress the parental tear which then burst into his eye…’. [Rogers then left and] In a very few minutes after [he] had gained the rock, a universal shriek, which still vibrates in their ears, and, in which, the voice of female distress was lamentably distinguishable, announced the dreadful catastrophe; in a few moments all was hushed, except the warring winds, and beating waves; the wreck was buried in the remorseless deep, and not an atom of her was ever afterwards discoverable.' The horrific circumstances of the wreck, and Pierce’s bravery in staying with the women, were widely recounted in print and images. This is an early example of Stothard’s prolific work for print reproduction, including a number on maritime and naval themes (such as BHC1125). However, it is very unusual in not being a conventional wreck scene but one that uses an interior cabin view - rare enough in itself - to imply the impending fate of those trapped in the ship. The rapidity with which it was done, as were many other commercially driven projects relating to the 'Halsewell' incident and other celebrated wrecks, is easily traceable through the engraver's press advertisments. The earliest appeared in the ‘Public Advertiser’ for 28 January 1786: ‘LOSS of the HALSEWELL PROPOSALS for publishing by Subscription a PRINT, to the MEMORY of the late Captain PIERCE, his DAUGHTERS, &c., who perished in the Storm on Friday the 6th of January, 1786. To be engraved by EDMUND SCOTT from a PICTURE painted by Mr Stothard. The Print to represent the above unfortunate Persons anxiously waiting the Return of Day, in hopes of being relieved from their distressed Situation. The Picture will be painted from the particular Instruction of Mr Henry Meriton, Second Officer on board, who has obligingly undertaken to superintend the Design, and to give the ingenious Artist any further Instruction that may be necessary. The Size of the Print 14 inches by 12. The Price to Subscribers Eight shillings; Proof Impressions Twelve shillings; half to be paid at the Time of subscribing; the Remainder on Delivery of the Print, which shall be finished as speedily as possible, and will be delivered in the Order they are subscribed for. Subscriptions taken in by Mr. Lewis Preston, Stationer, Rotherhithe Wall; Mr. Cornell, Bruton-street, Berkeley-square; Mr Dunthorne, Jun., Colchester; Mr. J. Gyles, Quiet-street, Bath; and the proprietor, Edmund Scott, No. 138, near Furnival’s Inn, Holbourn...’. By 15 February the advertisement (this time from the 'Morning Herald') had been amended to state it would be ‘a Cabbin scene’ and the list of those taking subscriptions expanded to include ‘Mr. Lane, Bookseller, No. 33 Leadenhall-street (publisher of the [Meriton and Rogers] Narrative)…Mr. Sibbald, Bookseller, Liverpool; Mr. Breadhower, Bookseller, Portsmouth; [and] Mr. Norton, Bristol….’. On 4 April a further advertisement (‘General Evening Post’) stated that ‘Mr Stothard having finished the is now ready for the inspection of Subscribers and others’ at Scott’s Holborn premises. This continues: ‘E. SCOTT begs leave to assure the Public, that his Picture is not designed to excite Horror, as has been suggested; it represents a Cabin Scene, with the unfortunate Sufferers, before the fatal Catastrophe, waiting in Suspense and Anxiety the Return of Day. Scott is happy in the Opportunity of returning his sincere thanks to Mr. Meriton, not only for his valuable instructions, but for the polite manner in which they were given.’ By this time, also, ‘Mr. Smith, Canterbury’ and ‘Mr. Upsal, Alresford’, Hants., had joined the subscription agents. The print presumably appeared within a reasonable time afterwards, either late in 1786 or 1787, since there seems to be no further specific advertisement of it with Scott's other output. Scott was a prolific and succcessful publisher, and Stothard did a great deal of early work for him. He moved from Holborn shortly afterwards to Brunswick Row, Queen's Square, since this was his address when 'The World (1787)' for Saturday 22 March 1788, announced his appointment ‘Monday last’ as Engraver to the Duke of York , following his presentation to the latter of a print of his brother, Prince William Henry, shortly afterwards made Duke of Clarence. This was from a drawing by the young Thomas Lawrence, after a bust by John Lockie. By 1791 Scott was also engraver to Prince Edward (later Duke of Kent). Press adverstisements also show that cargo and fittings (including guns) from the 'Halsewell' were soon salvaged and auctioned at Poole in December 1786. It is today a protected historic wreck site: fragmentary relics recovered at various times are in Dorchester Museum.
Date made 1786

Artist/Maker Stothard, Thomas
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Painting: 305 mm x 355 mm; Frame: 407 mm x 482 mm
  • The wreck of the 'Halsewell', Indiaman, 1786 (ZBA4537)
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