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Lot 195       from Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection
Sotheby's 18th November 1981       Estimate: £300-£500

From Charles Brooking, 2000, by Joel and Taylor, p 42


à bout de souffle

Christmas 2011 AD


Some there may be who are ignorant of Godard's first and only cinematic masterpiece, À bout de souffle. The phrase does not lend itself to simple translation. The film is known to Angloglots as "Breathless", but this does not adequately render the full implications: out of breath? terminal breath? last gasp? Life at the End of its Breath? One of the last works of H.G.Wells, 1866-1946, was Mind at the End of its Tether. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a Prussian aristocrat born in 1884 and shot while confined at Dachau in 1945, was the author of a book titled Diary of a Man in Despair. I find myself attracted to the titles of these productions, have copies of the books, as well as the movie, and am reminded of them when reflecting on my attempts to shed light on the history of British painting, 1700-1750.

With only a handful of years remaining, before my last breath slips its tether, the dominant sensation is of despair, lightly leavened with revulsion and disgust, occasioned by a realisation of the near-total indifference to integrity and truth demonstrated by the art-historical fraternity, and especially the English marine painting collection of art-historians. Not to mention the academic nonentities and ethical mediocrities that inhabit the auction houses and art dealerships. These barrow-boys and shysters regard facts as strictly secondary to their own ideological or profit-seeking agendas. C'est vraiment dégueulasse. A bitch; and then you die.

Consider the painting reproduced at left: once, above, from an auction catalogue in 1981, and once, below, in a catalogue raisonné from 2000. The decision by the auction house to adjust the measurements by half an inch, and then to de-attribute the picture from Charles Brooking (though signed) to Francis Swaine, baffles comprehension. Twenty years later it was silently re-attributed to Brooking. Had it not been signed it would have been unlikely to have ever been ascribed to Brooking; but its likelihood of being by Swaine is precisely nil. Its manner bears little resemblance to anything known to be by Swaine.

The truth is, as Roger de Piles memorably remarked: "There are some curious men who form an idea of a master, by the sight of three or four of his pictures; and who, after this, believe they have a sufficient authority to decide what his manner is; without considering what care the painter took about them, and what age he was of when he drew them. ..... There is none also that had not his beginning, his progress, and his end; that is to say, three manners." This comes from the English translation of his Art of Painting, first published in 1706. It is not at all impossible for the painting to have been produced by Brooking when aged 17, and paired with his burning ship. He would have been emulating Monamy, then aged 60 and old enough to be his grandfather.

Obviously, signatures don't mean much.
As I was often told by Michael Robinson during 1981-1983.

"History is something to be created rather than learned". So said George Orwell. Art history, like the art market and art itself, is a morass of illusion, confusion and pretension mired in ignorance, indifference, stupidity, greed, deception and mendacity, and has little in common with truth, as thinkers from Plato onwards have suspected. Try Iris Murdoch: The Fire & The Sun, why Plato banished the artists. The focus here is on Peter Monamy, and therefore the problems are even greater than otherwise. One correspondent has put it as follows. He wrote: "I read that many historians believe that many of the paintings attributed to Monamy may have, in fact, been created by others during a period where this type of art was becoming very popular, and presumably profitable, and I gather it is virtually impossible to make any certain determination with regard to work that is attributed to Monamy." Difficult no doubt, but not necessarily impossible. It is very possible to accumulate a record of those paintings which can be confidently attributed to Monamy, for historical and other reasons, to develop thereby an appreciation of his manner, and the manner characteristic of his studio, and then to judge other works accordingly.

This logical and rational approach, striven for on this website, is not, sadly, adopted by anyone else --- so far as I can tell. The situation may be hopeless, but, in the immortal words of Anonymous, "not desperate". On the pages following this one, attention will be drawn to the chaos reigning in the early English marine painting market, despite the evident pointlessness of the exercise. Consider, for instance, the existence of a site which appeared not long ago, entitled Art Finder. This now (February 2015) seems to have disappeared, but claimed to present 31 works by Peter Monamy. Seventeen of these could reasonably be endorsed as genuine products of the Monamy enterprise, although one of them was presented back to front, and at least three of them were wildly mis-titled. The dates assigned to several of them were arbitrary, and almost certainly quite wrong. At least seven of them were definitely not by him, or his studio, and were very probably not even painted during his lifetime. But who cares ? Several of the works appeared to have been supplied by "authorities" that should have known better, and from whom greater rigour and self-respect might have been expected.

To whet the appetite of the reader (if any) here is an exemplary introduction to the standards currently obtaining. Below is a detail of a work which appeared for auction on the London art market, 24 November 2011. The accompanying catalogue note waxed eloquent, and was larded with reference to the "thorough examination and discussion with several academics" with which this painting, along with another of very similar composition, shown below, had been favoured.

Sold for £85,250

This particular picture was described, in lot notes of unshakable assurance, as a work directly from the hand of William van de Velde, the Younger. Signed 'W. v: Velde' on a spar, lower left, in a carved and gilded 18th century frame, it measured 54¼ x 48¼ in; and had passed through the same saleroom six years earlier, in 2005.

Reference is made to a "version" of this composition, dated by Michael Robinson to circa 1700 (see detail below, left). The notes suggest that the work being offered is "the primary version", which would presumably date it to earlier than 1700.

Even the most myopic of the academics, connoisseurs, collectors, auctioneers and dealers assembled around this artwork, however, cannot have failed to note its most striking visual feature, the red ensign fluttering from the ship's stern staff.

The ensign incorporates the Union flag as its canton. The design of this flag was not adopted by the British fleet until after the Acts of Union, uniting England with Scotland, which became law on May 1st, 1707. Sadly, the Younger van de Velde had already died, on 6th April, 1707. Who, one wonders, had painted this flag, if not the entire picture?

When this painting first appeared in 2005, at an auction of date 19 May, it was attributed to Willem van de Velde the younger (1633-1707) and Studio, though signed. Perhaps the word "studio" had been added, scrupulously, to allow for the posthumous ensign; although it had been dropped by 2011. It is still difficult to pre-date the painting to 1700, however. The circumstances surrounding this artwork resemble those created by Harry Parker, when he described how Admiral George Byng, Lord Torrington, seven years after his death in 1733, toddled off to Vauxhall Gardens to admire Monamy's painting of Porto Bello, 1740.

Michael Robinson comments in his Volume II, p 1081, in his notes on the painting, which he dates to c.1700, that "there is no record of the picture being signed"; and also that the work is "described from a photograph". Does the photograph (I hear you cry) clearly show what canton is contained in the ensign? Could it be that Michael was mistaken in its date? Not to mention its authorship?

details only from both paintings

Left: pre-1707 canton                                               Right: post-1707 canton
The left-hand painting is, quote: "Studio of Willem Van De Velde II.... 30 x 25"

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for more fascinating items from the portfolio of curiosities

"The greatest historical heresy that a writer can commit in the eyes of many English readers
is to tell them the truth."
Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, 1747 - 1813, author, translator and lawyer.

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears .....


      Charles Brooking, 1723-1759, marine painter and hero

From the Monamy & Walker conversation piece c 1730-33
About as authentic a painting as could be found.

chronology & authenticity
brooking: early years
brooking & monamy: fire       brooking & monamy: light
brooking & monamy: storms      brooking & monamy: various
monamy & brooking & van de velde: a squadron beating to windward
monamy & brooking & ireland?
monamy moonlight oils
a century of moonlight
monamy & british art history
monamy website index

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2011, 2015
all rights reserved

A bomb-ketch becalmed by moonlight. First reported signed Brooking. Then credited to Swaine (died 1782). In 2006 said to depict Decatur entering Tripoli in 1803. Give me strength

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