A CONFERENCE PAPER
Early C18th Marine Painting
and the emergence of the English School
There was little time for questions after the four panel speakers had finished. The papers of my co-panellists were better prepared and delivered, and most of the questions were directed to them. For a speaker, questions from an audience are by far the most stimulating and rewarding part of the proceedings, and therefore they are followed up below. The answers given are necessarily not as they were made on the spot, but tempered and extended by later reflection.
Q1: Do the stripes of the East India Company flag have anything to do with the stripes on the American flag? The Union flag in the canton, which is seen flying from a ship illustrated on the dust-wrapper of a History of the East India Company, is replaced by stars, which are also part of George Washington's coat of arms.
A: I was unable to answer this question impromptu, and had in any case forgotten that the Union does appear in the EIC flag. Although this striped flag was not invariably flown with a Union canton, the canton may be merely obscured by the sail on the East Indiaman presented in my talk. It does, however, occur in another painting attributed, with some justification, to Monamy, although Swaine could also have painted it. This is shown below, and the canton is discernible in spite of the poor quality of the image. Washington's coat of arms also has a couple of stripes as well as three stars.
The book wrapper my questioner was referring to must have been the one at right. See below.
Trawling the web, I later discovered that the question of the origins of the American flag is much discussed, most exhaustively in an article entitled The STRIPED FLAG of the EAST INDIA COMPANY, and its CONNEXION with the AMERICAN STARS and STRIPES, published in The Mariner's Mirror, October 1937, by Sir Charles Fawcett. Click: http://www.flagandbanner.com/fab/flag.asp?cpage=history1. A shorter account is viewable at: http://flagspot.net/flags/gb-eic2.html, and there is considerable information about George Washington and his coat of arms here: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagtale.html.
A sideline thrown up by this browsing is that George Washington's great-great-grandfather was a Rev Lawrence Washington, 1602-1655, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, who was a "Malignant Royalist", and died in poverty, causing his son John to emigrate to America.
It is self-evidently true that those who seek to tax the rising merchant classes, in the form of Ship Money or Excise Bills, and Without Representation, are innately Malignant. It is the duty of all free and equal men to rebel against them. Sometimes these fiscal tyrants lose their heads, their jobs, or their tea-bags. Admiral Vernon was an exceptionally popular figure in America, and especially so with the Washington family. Horace Walpole's verbal malignancy towards Vernon, who was the single individual most publicly responsible for his father's fall from power, was unremitting. Trade, enterprise and an independent mind are despised or smothered by so-called old money.
Q2: Was Turner not strongly influenced by the sunlight of Claude Lorrain? [Claude lived 1600-1682.]
A: The question of Claude's early influence on English marine painting is discussed here on the website pages dealing with Thomas Baston's prints. Turner was of course directly inspired by Claude, but it is not impossible that his interest was first prompted by youthful notice of Baston's engravings. I believe it is of some art-historical significance that prints after Claude were relatively easily available in the first decades of the 1700s. It is curious that there appear to be no oil paintings by Baston. A great quantity of engravings after Claude was published by Boydell in 1776 and 1777, and it is perhaps more likely that Turner was directly inspired by these. I cannot detect any obvious direct link between Monamy's light-filled sunsets and Claude's work, but it may be there. On the other hand some of the purely compositional elements in Monamy's paintings appear to be directly parallelled by Turner. Perhaps there are sources common to both Monamy and Turner. See new page: Monamy & Claude.
Outside the seminar room a few more questions were put to me.
Q3: What actual evidence is there for Monamy belonging to the Walpole Opposition?
A: Since I frequently reflect on the difficulty of finding hard documentation for Monamy's life, eg in the form of letters or contemporary transactions, my thoughtlessly snap answer to this was "None at all". In fact, of course, there is almost overwhelming circumstantial evidence for Monamy belonging, at the very least, to the Vernon faction. A great number of his paintings after about 1733 reflect general public interest and opinion, and his undeniable links with the naval Durells are strong indication of his political alignment. His grandson's appeals for patronage to the Duke of Newcastle are documented, although it might be argued that these are rather secondary evidence.
Q4: Wasn't Samuel Scott a prominent and important marine painter?
A: My short answer to this was that Scott wasn't a marine painter. I had deliberately avoided mentioning Scott in the talk, since the subject would have added complications unmanageable within the time limit, but my reasons are set out on this website. When I asked my questioner if she liked Scott, I detected a slight wince, but received an affirmative reply. Agreeing that he was a nice painter (I should have said artist), I put it to her that his talent was for architecture, and pointed out that he had been bought in to the Walpole cause when the Walpole-Scott Club was formed in 1733. My questioner remarked that I reminded her of the passage in Jane Austen's Persuasion, where Admiral Croft criticizes a marine picture for its nautical inaccuracies.
My slow wits prevented me from remembering Joseph Highmore's observation that "a sailor ..... is a better judge of the principal circumstances which enter into the composition of a seapiece, than the best painter in the world, who was never at sea". Accuracy in representational art is, of course, not a fault. Few would maintain that anatomical accuracy is not part and parcel of the artistic perfection of Stubbs. But the essence of genuine marine painting lies not in accuracy, but in its expression of felt reality. This, rather than the chilly dispassion of clinical observation, from a safe distance on solid earth, is its principal circumstance. Turner's depiction of the Battle of Trafalgar is remarkably unfettered by his academic appointment as a Professor of Perspective. There are marine aficionados who would deny that Turner is a marine painter: I am not one of them; and I believe that Turner's marines are in the Monamy vein. They certainly owe nothing to Scott.
My questioner's sensed reaction to my question about liking Scott also reminded me of the anecdote related by Robert Graves, where he describes being rapped over the knuckles by his Oxford tutor for letting it be said of him that he actually preferred some poets above others. It is not academically correct to have preferences, much less express them.
Above: the East India Company's settlement at Bombay, India, by George Lambert and Samuel Scott, circa 1732-33. The buildings are by Lambert, and the ships by Scott. Scott's personal predilection for architecture did not become fully apparent until about 1740. Left: an East Indiaman, by Peter Monamy. The date of 1720 commonly given for this painting seems to me much too early.
Preferences of taste are not readily explained. In the C18th, "writer after writer" says Pears, "hurled himself into the melée in the quest to discover what taste was and establish some sort of useful definition for it." [D of P; p.28].
see here for more on taste
part one: painter and patron
part two: sea trade & sea power
part three: virtuosi & walpole
part four: monamy's legacy
monamy website index
© Charles Harrison Wallace 2004, 2015
all rights reserved