For comment on NMM website biography, see below.

Extract on Monamy
from The Old English Landscape Painters, F.Lewis 1957 & 1974, p.69, Vol I of VIII
by Colonel M.H.Grant
     
connoisseurship goes ballistic
     

PETER MONAMY
(1670-1749)

was born in Jersey, an island which had been as loyal to the Stuarts¹ as the Highlands of Scotland, and at a like sacrifice. When but a youth, however, Monamy migrated to London, where he became indentured to a sign-painter. The scene of his apprenticeship was one of those houses, then newly built after the Great Fire, which encumbered London Bridge from 1667 to 1761, as we may see, drawn faithfully on the spot, in a National Gallery work of a painter soon to be described, Samuel Scott. Thus says Horace Walpole, 'the shallow waves which rolled under young Monamy's window taught him what his master could not teach, and fitted him to imitate the turbulence of the ocean'. As a matter of fact this is precisely what Thames' turgid flood did not do for Monamy. His ocean is invariably the weakest part of his work, since, like his models the Van de Veldes, like Brooking, Callcott, Stanfield, and all other artistic longshoremen, whose study of the sea has been conducted from the beach, he seemed never to be able to escape from the sickly hues and uninspiring forms of shallow water. On London Bridge, however, young Monamy scored a thorough success. Says the genial writer of 'Wine and Walnuts' ---- 'he exhibited his works in the window of his shop, to the delight of the sons of Neptune, men and boys, who were seen in crowds gazing at his wondrous art'. Actually Monamy's paintings have an accuracy of drawing, a pleasantness of surface and occasionally a luminosity of atmosphere which stamps him as a very real artist. His chief fault is a total lack of accent; all is harmonious, even tender, almost to weakness, lacking moreover just that mastery of tone which renders the most featureless calms of Van de Velde or Van de Capelle so many gems of pearly purity. Monamy, nevertheless, was not afraid of big work. A huge canvas, one of three from his hand, covers some nine feet by seven of the wall of Painter's Hall; and on this scale his deficiency in power of 'centreing' is less noticeable than in smaller works. Other typical sea pieces by him are at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and the Dulwich Gallery. But we would have no concern here with Monamy had he not occasionally turned his painting-stool landward, on which occasions moreover he immediately began to paint better than when he faced his favourite element. A fine picture, scarcely a landscape yet entirely of land ---- The Old East India Wharf (63 x 54) ---- which hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum² displays Monamy as a good colourist and fine painter of buildings; whilst a little study in the same institution ---- some old buildings and a tilted cart ---- outlined with pen and slightly tinted, is quite Cotmanesque in its vigorous draughtsmanship and economy of line. Finally, another work known to us reveals the usually phlegmatic performer as fully susceptible to the romantic influence of moonlight. Monamy, in short, is by no means to be despised as one of the pathfinders in our early art. That he was highly considered in his day is proved by his being chosen by the unhappy Admiral Byng to decorate his coach with naval scenes, coach-painting in those days being esteemed as a fine art, to which, indeed, it often rose.

But it is superfluous to insist upon a reputation supported by such references to his 'wondrous art' and the 'famous marine painter', as were supplied by those old gossips Ephraim Hardcastle (W.H.Pyne, 1769-1843), and 'Antiquity Smith' (J.T.Smith, 1766-1833), whose respective Wine and Walnuts and Nollekens and his Times furnish us with much of the anecdotal history of eighteenth century art.

Monamy's work, to recapitulate, may be studied in the following public and semi-public places --- Victoria and Albert Museum, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Dulwich Gallery, Foundling Hospital, Hall of the Painters' Company, with a fine example (43 x 70) at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, representing the Embarkation of King Charles II on His Return to England.

¹   Guernsey had declared for Cromwell and the Parliament.

²   Grounds, and fairly good ones, are now deduced by some for ascribing this fine work of the Victoria and Albert Museum not to Monamy but to Samuel Scott. Whilst not altogether agreeing on stylistic considerations, the existence of an almost identical picture by Scott at the Fishmonger's Hall must at least throw doubt on one or other of these attributions, with the weight of evidence against Monamy. The Fishmongers' example is styled Bear Quay, or Custom House Quay, and was reproduced in Country Life (January 19th, 1929). For the above information I am indebted to a lady to whom all researchers in old English topographical Landscape are indebted, Mrs Hilda Finberg. If her inference be correct, once more we nurse the annoyance of public exhibits, exhibited as final in ascription, erroneously attributed and catalogued, recalling Sir Joshua's petulant remark: 'Really, the Art should not always be to begin!'

"The reader may be assured that the author has actually seen and carefully examined every painting referred to without exception."

From the Preface to the Present Edition, 1957. The first edition was published in 1926. It is worth noting that the Foundling Hospital painting is said to have disappeared in 1909. Michael Robinson would have been outraged (and almost certainly was, since I now recall him reacting to the name of Grant with an expression of pain) to be told that "the Van de Veldes, ..... whose study of the sea has been conducted from the beach, ..... seemed never to be able to escape from the sickly hues and uninspiring forms of shallow water."

Almost every statement that Grant makes on Monamy, his art, and everything else, in this piece is wrong. The Jersey islanders' sacrifices in the Stuart cause were like nothing compared to those of the Scottish Highlanders; the waters under old London Bridge were not turgid ---- in fact the water rushed through the narrows created by the foundation pillars with great force; the "public or semi-public" paintings mentioned (except for the Painter's Hall picture, and the Kensington Palace royal occasion, now in Buckingham Palace) are either not by Monamy, or not now well-recognized, or had not even been seen by this elegant author ---- unless he examined the Foundling Hospital picture 50 years before the 1957 edition of his book, etc, etc.


Dutch impression of the turgid waters under Old London Bridge, 1690.

The view from St Olave's, Southwark, 1751. The houses shook.

There are perhaps two valuable points. The quotation from Pyne is of considerable significance in indicating the immense contemporary popularity of Monamy's pictures, and the attention paid to them by Londoners, many of whom were probably being introduced to easel paintings for the first time in their lives; and the mention of a "work known to us (which) reveals the usually phlegmatic performer as fully susceptible to the romantic influence of moonlight". It is, in fact, Monamy who first introduces a specifically Romantic sensibility to English painting. Grant, completely misled by previous written comment, appears totally unaware of the great variety of storm scenes and breezes that Monamy produced.

"A sizable chunk of art history consists of unravelling other people's errors and substituting your own." The Raphael Affair, 1990, Iain Pears, Chapter 5.

"In one view ... the history of scholarship is a history of error." Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past, Professor E.G.Stanley: D.S.Brewer 2000, p.110.


back to walpole's anecdotes

Note: 20th March 2009.

In 1952 Colonel Grant published A Dictionary of British Landscape Painters: from the 16th Century to the early 20th Century. The book was reprinted with a supplement in 1970. Although this dictionary appears to have preceded the 1957 and 1974 editions of The Old English Landscape Painters, its entry for Monamy is a great improvement on the remarks in that account. This is presumably because the eight volume work, or in any case its first volume, originally dated from 1926. Colonel Grant seems very substantially to have changed his opinion in the entry given below.

Note: 23rd April 2003.

At least until the above date the website mounted by the National Maritime Museum was providing a short biography of Monamy, which now seems to have been removed. (August 1st 2003: it now seems to have been replaced.) It contained some corrections of past error, recognizing the painter's Guernsey descent and London birth, but still lacked precision and appreciation, and was written in a condescending tone. In parts it was oddly misleading and even simply inaccurate. Opinion may be one thing, but factual error is shoddily irresponsible. A university student getting his or her first information about Monamy from this dismissive source might well have imagined that his Vauxhall Gardens display consisted of "several of the supper-boxes" containing "marine paintings illustrating John Gay's patriotic ballad 'Sweet William's Farewell'", as though there were more than one such illustration, and no others. In any case, the song, the original "Sailor's Farewell", popularly represented on chinaware for about two hundred years and most recently on a best-selling record, is romantically sentimental, and not especially patriotic. In fact, not patriotic at all, although Monamy's illustration might conceivably be interpreted as patriotic.

Patronising contempt for folk art and the demotic is the mark of the semi-cultured snob: see Colonel Grant above. Before Monamy there was virtually no indigenous art, other than the painted signboard. By 1730, ie appreciably before Hogarth's breakthrough, the entire nation, or the whole of its capital city at least, was alive to the potential enjoyment of owning a picture which could hang, with pride but without pretension, in the front room. Why did Vertue call him Pictor Londini? Why is he presented in possibly the single most significant portrayal of a native painter in the history of 18th century English art?

The website biography called over-emphatic attention to a couple of derivative battle-scenes, and ignored the important fact that Monamy's battle pieces between 1704 and 1739 include the battle of Malaga (1704), the relief of Barcelona, and the bombardment of Alicante (1705), the blockade of Dunkirk (1708), and the battle of Cape Passaro (1718), in more than one version. None of these battle-plans are "modelled on paintings by earlier masters". Between 1718 and 1739 there were no naval engagements of any kind. After 1739 there are many paintings by Monamy of most of the contemporary war actions. One of his most notable pictures, the capture of the Princesa, 1739, has more in common with his own early ship portraits or signboard paintings than anything by the van de Veldes.

The use of the phrase "artistic eclipse" exposes an inability to grasp that no artist, great or otherwise, ever sprung fully-fledged out of a vacuum, as well as a lack of appreciation of how art actually develops from one generation to the next. It was not only Newton who stood on other men's shoulders in order to see as far as he did. Many painters suffer both artistic and financial eclipse during their lifetimes, and Rembrandt, one of the two or three greatest painters who ever lived, is the finest example. Monamy's place in the history of British painting is unique: of what other painter within a century of his lifespan could it be said that he had a major canvas hanging at Buckingham Palace, as well as a painted street signboard visible to all and sundry, complemented by numerous prints available to anyone for a couple of pence, for at least fifty years after his death? The breadth of his appeal encompassed everyone, with the sole exception of Walpole and his "judicious" cronies. Monamy's contribution to English painting was to lay the foundations for all later native marine art, and the duty of the National Maritime Museum should be to preserve the objective, unvarnished truth of our maritime heritage, no matter how unfashionable or politically incorrect this may sometimes seem.

23 April 2003. The date of Shakespeare's birth and death. A trip through the NMM web pages today reveals that several paintings by the van de Veldes have been mounted. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that because of their quality the NMM should concentrate with such adoration on the work of these painters, turncoat Dutchmen who betrayed their country and aligned themselves for personal gain with the hated kings, Charles II and James II of the Stuart dynasty, repudiated by the Navy and the ordinary Londoner alike. The lines below come from A Dialogue between the Two Horses, attributed to Andrew Marvell, and published in 1689, 1697, and, most significantly, in 1726. It also appears in Captain Thompson's edition, 1776. Marvell's authorship has been disputed, but in the 1720s and 1730s it would have been taken for granted by Londoners, many of whom, especially the Walpole opposition, must have had this poem by heart, as well as many of Marvell's other political poems and satires. See The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. Margouliouth, Legouis, Duncan-Jones, OUP, 1971, p.208 and notes, p.414.

What is thy opinion of James Duke of York?
The Same that the Froggs had of Jupiters Stork ...
If e're he be King I know Brittains Doome;
Wee must all to the Stake or be Converts to Rome.
A Tudor a Tudor! wee've had Stuarts enough;
None ever Reign'd like old Besse in the Ruffe.

Sometimes, to someone taking an anti-art-establishment viewpoint, ie one which is democratic and anti-top-down, it seems as though the entire weight of benumbed bureaucracy is being applied to prove Monamy's inferiority to, and total dependence on, these privileged imports. Monamy started in English easel painting almost from scratch, and used their leavings as graphic aids, much as all artists use whatever aids they can to further their personal art, in order to develop an English style. He was neither slavish nor plagiaristic, but willing to learn. Why is it still so satisfying to the conformist art-historian to smugly belittle his achievements, industry and endeavour?

Samuel Scott, a not entirely dissimilar character to the van de Veldes, also repudiated by genuine seamen, is heralded on the NMM site for his non-marine marines and presented as the especial chum of William Hogarth. It should be noted that Hogarth's jolly trip with Scott, Thornhill junior and others, took place just before it became clear that Scott had thrown in his lot, for personal gain, with the Walpoles, something Hogarth never did. There is mention, much later, that Hogarth joined with Scott in playing an artistic trick on Hudson. Presumably the pug recognized what a trap Scott had got himself into.

      Then is the Poets time, 'tis then he drawes
And single fights forsaken Vertues cause.
He, when the wheel of Empire whirleth back,
And though the World's disjointed Axel crack,
Sings still of ancient Rights and better Times
Seeks wretched good, arraigns successful Crimes.

     

phlegmatic performances by a longshoreman
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