MONAMY
PROBLEMS

"Mr Michael Robinson, whose interest and concern for truth has motivated all research on Monamy since 1970, cautions awareness of the problems. Conjecture in these comments is therefore not offered in fear of contradiction, but in hopes of correction." Chichester catalogue, 1983.

"You have established the life and are on the right track with your commentary on the paintings themselves". Professor Ronald Paulson, 1983.

Twenty years down the track the problems remain, and few conjectures have been addressed, let alone considered or corrected. The great, overriding problem is the variety and unevenness of the oeuvre. There is a discrepancy between many of those paintings generally, widely and traditionally ascribed to Monamy, and those which can be taken, with reasonable confidence, to be conclusively authentic. The print legacy is also in direct conflict with many ascribed paintings. It is difficult to establish provenance or certainty for a great proportion of those paintings which can be regarded as Monamy's "best" works, which, nevertheless, are virtually impossible to attribute to any other painter. Those paintings of some reasonably acceptable provenance do not impress with their academic "quality".

Art & Illustration. The only comment on Monamy's painting made to me by his descendant Caroline, a practising artist, was the non-judgmental remark "an illustrator". I am not sure that a firm distinction between art and illustration was apparent to Monamy's contemporaries, but there may be something of the idea in Richardson, 1719. Perhaps an illustrator can be defined as a conceptual artist who works from secondary sources, rather than from "observation of nature". This might be true of Monamy to a degree, but, as Vertue noticed, by no means entirely. In this context Hogarth's contempt for still life, and exact copying of chance appearance, seems relevant. But even the closest representation of nature is selective.

Chronology. The problem here is that there is very little that can be ascribed a date with reasonable confidence earlier than 1720. The proposed chronological sequence of paintings is set out here, and there is a gap from 1704 to 1720. The likeliest explanation is that after being made free of his master in 1704, he was making his way as an independent painter; decorating, painting sign-boards, selling his easel paintings from his shop on London Bridge, and being commissioned from time to time to produce ship portraits or other views. The idea that he was employed by Cornelius van de Velde, or whoever ran the van de Velde operation after the Younger died in 1707, to help out with their business, strikes me as utterly improbable. This thought did not occur to anyone until 1866, and then only to be rejected. Nothing in his established oeuvre gives the slightest hint that he received any "training" by anyone called van de Velde.

Followers. The followers, pasticheurs and emulators, were legion, and this in itself is a problem. Among these followers may have been Mr Leemans, who would be better described as following Monamy rather than van de Velde. There are strong echoes of Monamy, in various degrees of skill, particularly in terms of sentiment and palette, throughout the second half of the 18th century and into the 19th. Many of these pictures will have been based on the ubiquitous Monamy sea-pieces, readily available in print until well into the 1800s. There are also a number of Monamy's contemporaries who are now prone to be described as his "followers", or of his "circle".

Life. There is a lesser gap in the recorded life events between the birth of Andrew Monamy, son of Peter and Hannah, baptised at St Mary's, Whitechapel, in August 1712, and the presence of Peter Monyman in Westminster in 1723, followed by the baptism of Anne Monamy at St Margaret's in 1725. Vertue's belief that Monamy was born in Jersey, and "came to London when young", admits the slight possibility that some time after 20th September, 1682, Pierre Monamy, his father, returned with his family to the Channel Islands. There are equally slight indications of an inheritance to be claimed in Guernsey, following the death there of André Monamy, Peter's grandfather, sometime Jurat and Parliamentary Governor, in 1680. Perhaps there was nothing but a large debt. Part of Peter's childhood may nevertheless have been spent in the Channel Isles, but more probably Guernsey than Jersey.

Manner. In spite of the now long extended welcome given to such as Alfred Wallis and L.S.Lowry there is still a total failure by writers on English marine painting to grasp that because of his seven-year apprenticeship Monamy is au fond a folk artist, in a way that Brooking and Scott are not. Any attempt at assessment which does not appreciate this basic fact will be seriously misdirected. For the only intelligent comment on this topic we naturally have to go abroad, across the pond in fact. An extract from John Wilmerding's bull's-eye remarks in American Marine Painting is given here, but the main points are worth repeating: "..... concerned more with abstract design than with illusionism. ..... conceptual rather than optical ..... standard of success ..... (is) in the quality of decorative design ..... not in observed but in felt reality ..... recognized by the vitality of the abstract design", etc. Monamy is remarkable because he successfully bridged the gap between folk art and fine art. At the same time this makes it almost impossible for the average insensible fine art licentiate to come to terms with his work, and the result is bafflement, condescension or dismissal. The defining element in Monamy's manner is not draughtsmanship or gloss, but vitality, drama and romance. This was recognized and appreciated by sea-faring contemporaries.

15 Feb 2004. Some of the above requires modification, as the introductory remarks by Andras Kalman in James Ayres' generally excellent English Naive Painting 1750-1900, are a precise expression of what is so deeply wrong with English art history. It is a pity that this revelatory study does not include marines of the early C18th among the several genres it addresses; and its section on The Sea, pp 130-131, betrays a strictly limited understanding of the true nature of English marine painting. This is inevitable, given the book's publication in 1980, and its terminus a quo.

Market. Patronage in the early 18th century was almost the sole deciding factor for the success of a professional writer or painter. Only portrait-painters, as Hogarth pointed out, were assured of a reasonably constant market. When John Gay fell foul of the Walpole administration, his patroness, the Duchess of Queensberry, was expelled from court on his account. She and her husband stuck by him, however. Monamy's success was additionally remarkable for not being dependent on a single obvious Maecenas, but seems to have derived from the backing of the particularly well-defined groups of merchants and naval officers with whose outlook he was well in agreement. Prominent among these during the 1720s must have been George Byng, and during the 1740s the Durell clan. Connoisseurship and increasing middle-class wealth would in time have eroded the character of this market, or markets of this type. The concept of art for all was nevertheless in the air from the 1720s onwards, found expression at Vauxhall Gardens, was pursued by Hogarth, and remained an ideal for many artists following the impetus it first received especially in London, and in the marine genre. The importance of marine painting declined as the century advanced, until it fell into a secondary status, ending up, risibly, as a "branch of the landscape painter's art".

Quality. The paintings below, all in the NMM, offer sufficient justification on their own for Allan Cunningham's 1840 correction of Walpole's grudgingly conceded "good painter of sea-pieces" to a revised "excellent delineator of sea-pieces". Perhaps the opinion quoted by Julian Marshall in 1895 would give rise to some violent dissension, but it depends on the time of the "reckoning". Although a date of 1720 has been allotted, for reasons unknown, to the East Indiaman, and the Signal to Anchor has conjecturally been dated to 1708 and 1715, both these dates seem to me way out. The Signal to Anchor, since it includes a boat marked GR, cannot possibly be earlier than 1715, and I would put it at least after 1725. I doubt whether any of the pictures shown below were produced more than five years either side of the The Three Flagships Becalmed, inscribed with the date 1728.



national maritime museum

national maritime museum

national maritime museum

These five pictures are commonly regarded as echt. They do not easily fit in with the sequence proposed here. Only one, at lower right, is dated, and the date, 1728, is at odds with the subject. There is a striking variety of theme, and even style, within this small group.


national maritime museum

national maritime museum: dated 1728

If this group is enlarged by another 20 or so paintings, as suggested here, problems of the overall quality of the oeuvre still remain. This applies especially to paintings which with some certainty can be dated to about 1735 and later; in particular the pictures associated with Vauxhall Gardens. Some reason has to be found for what may appear to be a deterioration of style, or reversion to naïvety, of the paintings which can be assigned to the years from 1735-1745, ranging from the three paintings dated 1734, through the Cork Yacht Club yachts 1738, the Porto Bello and Princesa paintings, to Louisburg 1745 and the Nottingham takes the Mars, 1746. See below.


dated 1734

dated 1734

national maritime museum: dated 1734

royal cork yacht club: dated 1738

The eight paintings here, from the last 15 years of Monamy's life, seem to me to lack the vigour and accuracy of the group of five above. The hand appears to be the same, however.


datable post 1739

datable post 1740

national maritime museum: datable post 1745

sausmarez manor: datable post 1746

Range. A major problem with Monamy is the extreme breadth and variety of his work. Much comment on the oeuvre draws feeble conclusions from a minimum of instances. Typical is the remark in the Shock of Recognition catalogue: "He painted sea battles, usually on commission with the help of reconstructions and models." He did do this, a few times, but as a general statement it is ridiculous. Monamy's mistake, in terms of recognition by posterity, was to spread himself too thin. A canny artist should take care to establish his manner firmly in the minds of his public, allow himself to be pigeon-holed for the benefit of the connoisseur, and then work strictly within the frame of this style. How gratifying it is to recognize a Renoir immediately on sight. Monamy did not do this: his diversity is his undoing.

Rivalry. For most of the last 25 years I have imagined that the 1731 mezzotint announcing Monamy's claim to be second only to van de Velde would have been issued with Scott in mind. The section on the Vale brothers in Cockett's Early Sea Painters, however, has made me think that H.Vale, during the 1710s and '20s, would have been Monamy's more immediate early trade rival. Although the personal styles of Humphrey and his brother Robert are rather different, their subject-matter overlaps quite strikingly, and they seem to me excellent delineators of shipping in a strongly similar, native, folk-artistry vein, completely unswayed by any van de Velde influence and probably bred up in the same domestic school as Monamy, ie sign-painting. In the five or six years after the appearance of Kirkall's 16 shipping mezzotints Monamy would have extended his range, and acquired an ever-expanding collection of prints and drawings, leading him to state that he had outstripped the Vales. Meanwhile, of course, he was shortly to be out-flanked by Scott, whom he had probably not considered a rival at all, and by means he would have been humiliated to adopt.

Studio. Not only is Monamy's work uneven, there is variety within the unevenness. There must have been other hands working for him, from time to time. These "assistants" would have been, in all probability, no more than young boys, aged 12 and upwards, and they no doubt came and went, finding the painter's craft too arduous or unprofitable. The enigmatic Leemans can be discounted, but Brooking is a slight and Swaine a strong probability. There must have been others, though not numerous.

Taste. It may have been Cicero who first remarked that taste is not a matter for discussion; or perhaps, more idiomatically, that there is no accounting for taste. The word implies that some things please more than others, and are consequently "better". But is an unmade bed a "better" work of art than a pile of bricks? Or a bisected calf than a Campbell's soup wrapper? The only real art is to discover a patron with the pocket to provide. Some artists can't manage this until after they've passed on. But those that wish to live must please, as Johnson almost put it. In the end all pronouncements by arbiters of taste are arbitrary; and nearly all comment on Monamy's painting has been severely prejudiced. See Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, 1757: #21 "A person influenced by prejudice .... obstinately maintains his natural position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes". #22 "Prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties." #23 "Few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty .... a true judge in the finer arts is observed .... to be so rare a character." #24 "Where are such critics to be found? .... How distinguish them from pretenders?" Numbering by Theodore Gracyk.

Training. Monamy was trained as an apprentice sign-painter, coach-painter and house decorator, for a seven year period from the ages of 15 to 22.

His master was one of the London leaders of this trade. Several of Monamy's paintings retain elements of poster art. One of the most striking examples is the spectacular Blockade of Dunkirk. To some, this is an image startling in its modernity; to others, merely puzzling. Only distortion and unwet water will be perceived by the retrospective connoisseur.

Van de Velde. While there are local problems linked to the van de Veldes, like who they actually were, and how many, the major difficulty for anyone interested in other marine genre practitioners is the overwhelming exaggeration of the supposed van de Velde influence. English marine painters resemble their Dutch predecessors no more than Dutch marine painters resemble each other. Monamy, Brooking, Swaine, Paton, Cleveley, Serres and the rest are as different from van de Velde as van de Velde is different from Storck, Cappelle, Dubbels, Backhuysen and the rest. Trade followed the flag in this case, and domestic production rose to meet demand when the English awoke to their global maritime inheritance. It is true that the English followed the Dutch, in the sense that the 18th century came after the 17th century.

Reading over this page it seems that there aren't that many problems. When it comes to marine art criticism and art history, the only real problem is that writers persist in handing down their opinions on painters without looking at the pictures. In addition, especially when writing about Monamy, these experts have a blanket penchant for drawing wildly inaccurate general conclusions from singular instances.
     

..... the Generous scorn their Rise to owe
To Flattery, Pimping, and a gawdy shew

     

MONAMY WEBSITE PROBLEM PAGES

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monamy oddities         monamy anomalies
an english yacht head-reaching
hope & glory: what, when, why?         the van de velde studio
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doggett's winner date ?
leemans not monamy
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