auctioned as

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Do these locations look familiar ? See below.

A Stab at Summing Up

A Most Intriguing Painting

In the world of marine art history there are few certainties. One of these certainties, of rock-solid, copper-bottomed, incontrovertibility, is that the painting heading this page does NOT depict the Medway between Gillingham and Upnor. It cannot be over-stressed that the fortification at the right bears no resemblance whatsoever to Upnor Castle. It is, however, the spitting image of Tilbury Fort, as represented in Kip's engraving after Sailmaker. Moreover, the riverside community to the left bears considerably more than a passing resemblance to Gravesend, as displayed in a number of contemporary engravings, repeated with slight variation. Below is a reproduction of the fourth quarter of the standard at the main, apparently of post-1714 pattern.

If that's not a running white horse in the oil painting, what the hell is it ?
Seems to be almost absolutely certain that this picture was quite definitely painted before 1990.

Since it is evident, at least to my satisfaction, that neither the event, date nor location of the scene depicted agree with the catalogue note, I think that this fascinating work should be given a special title: let us say John Robertson's Monamy, or JRM for short. I do have to say that I find this composition one of the more unusually striking and interesting of the many and varied performances ascribed to Monamy; and this is not entirely because it managed to fetch almost exactly double its estimated auction price, exceeding, by a wide margin, the previous highest figure paid for a so-called "Monamy". Here I'm reminded of what a correspondent wrote to me: "I gather it is virtually impossible to make any certain determination with regard to work that is attributed to Monamy."

The determinable certainty in these cases is a matter of degree. There are several works which can with total certainty be attributed to Monamy; and there are others which are attributable to him with near-certainty. "Engravings executed during Monamy's lifetime are an excellent guide to the genuine manner of his oeuvre." What must be regarded as the very probable original oil of one of these, Fresh Breeze/Gale or Vent Frais, is shown below.

Fresh Breeze or Fresh Gale; oil original; removed from oval frame, and reversed. Image from Witt library.

The oil painting is presented here in the reverse sense, as the printed engraving, below, would reverse the drawing on which it was most probably based. The four principal vessels are pretty well exactly reproduced in the engraving, by P.C.Canot, and the longboat, rather amusingly, has been shifted to the side. The reason for this is a little puzzling, as what looks like a couple of fishermen, replacing it in centre foreground, seem oddly out of place in this crowded scene.

What is curiously striking about JRM is that, composition-wise, it appears to be a close, if not dead, ringer for Fresh Breeze, except that the direction of the shipping has been reversed.. Gravesend and Tilbury Fort, with blockhouse, have been inserted to the left and right of the picture. This undoubtedly makes JRM a remarkably effective and attractive composition, fully worthy of the 160,900 that it fetched at auction, especially considering the 2.2 million recently realised for Tracey's untidied bed.

At this point I am again reminded of what my unusually articulate correspondent wrote, some time ago now: "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." Pondering deeply on this remark, I am led to ask myself whether Monamy actually is the true author of JRM. The picture does display some of the characteristics of Monamy's perceived manner, warts and all. The "stepped foreground", a term coined by James Taylor, is evident. The typical treatment of the water in the JRM foreground strangely seems almost to have been modelled on the engraving, rather than the oil.

The gesticulations of the staffage figures also seem typical of Monamy, as well as the slightly faulty perspective of the bowsprits, boxed in white, above. Inaccurate perspectives when rendering these bowsprits seem almost compulsive among the earlier marine painters: the naive practitioner feels an urge to paint what he knows, rather than what he sees. One of Monamy's most extreme instances, with correction by Francis Swaine, is shown below.

the shifting slant to the bowsprit angle.

The Capture of the Mars: original at Sausmarez Manor, Guernsey.

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. There may nevertheless still be one or two around who find truth more beautiful than fiction. Some such benighted fools might like to know who Monamy really was, and what his works truly consisted of.

A fool of this nature will occupy hmself with establishing the man's true date and place of birth, his parentage and siblings, his ancestry and cultural heritage, his other relatives. Then his training, marriage(s), children, residences, with dates; death, place of burial, and descendants. His studio and assistants, who certainly, in spite of the V & A, included Francis Swaine.

Below are four examples illustrating Monamy's indubitably authentic natural style.

This oil, not in reverse, conceivably follows the print. But the clouds look original.

The authenticity of these oil paintings is substantially endorsed by the existence of the prints, all published prior to Monamy's death in 1749. Their attribution to Monamy can thus be determined with some reaonable certainty. The JRM discussed on this page, however, doesn't readily fit into this oeuvre. Many affluent collectors, of the less discriminating sort, would rather buy a nice signature than an authentic painting. The JRM comes from the collection of a collector of that ilk. As he showed me round his collection, pointing out his acquisitions: ~ ~ There is my Cleveley, there my Swaine, there my Brooking, there my Monamy ~~ I couldn't help thinking that he looked on them as a kind of stamp collection. There was little discrimination, merely an impulse to cover the ground. Inferior looking types would gradually be replaced by more attractive examples. His Samuel Scott is exceptionally magnificent, and very unlikely to be by Scott.

What, precisely, is this barge supposed to be doing in this scene ?

My considered impression of the JRM is that it is too slick, too skilled, too correct, too modernly marketable, to have been painted by Monamy. Not personally, anyway. If I didn't know any better I'd be tempted to say it had been designed by Monamy, but executed by someone else; Brooking, perhaps. It's too polished to be by Swaine. Conversely, I might say it had been put together by someone who definitely knew what they were doing; and amalgamated from the three contemporary prints already mentioned., some time certainly before 1990. But then, I don't know any better. And I haven't got 160,900.

opening page
last page

see pages 9, 10, 11 of this jeremiad of lamentation and despair


gravesend again
tilbury again
medway & thames
chronology & authenticity
monamy prints
another look at this JRM

monamy website index


"Forgeries are more real than the real art they fake." Jonathon Keats.
nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio

"When a thing is asserted as a fact, always ask who first reported it, and what means he had of knowing the truth."
James Spedding, 1808 - 1881

All truth passes through three stages. 1) It is ridiculed. 2) It is violently opposed. 3) It is accepted as self-evident.
Arthur Schopenhauer

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear "
"The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history."
"From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned."
"Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper."
"In a world of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."
"Truth is treason in an empire of lies."

George Orwell, 1903 - 1950

"Only he who is directly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness.
It is from such as these, and not from wage-earners, that the greatest things have always come."

Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851

All that concerns the gentry punting in these waters is the dosh, and how much is in it for them. Consequently, following the lead provided by the art gourmet's supreme example of pâté-de-foie-gras, Horace Walpole, a fictitious persona was gradually developed for Monamy,
complete with an ever-expanding number of misattributions, and, assuredly, utterly spurious latter-day fabrications.

Does it matter, and anyway, who cares ?


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2014
all rights reserved