The SAILOR and his FATE

Monamy 65 x 54

This painting, and the closely related canvas below, were exhibited at Pallant House, Chichester, 28th June to 27th August 1983. In the catalogue I commented that "the very carefully composed balance of the elements in this picture appears to make it unique and exclusive to Monamy. The ethereal light source is opposed to the dark rocks in the right foreground; and the high dry safety of the building on the coast (the "safe stronghold"?) is contrasted with the watery grave in the left foreground. These extremes form a compositional cross, at the centre of which sailors struggle for salvation." In another section of the catalogue I also noted that "rocks, waves, wind and light combine here in balanced opposition". Any marine art aficionado who read this, or who I tried it on at the time, no doubt thought that I must be slightly cracked, and received the idea with courteous silence. This kind of thing holds no appeal for the bluff English temperament.

It has been pleasing, therefore, to discover Lawrence Otto Goedde's study on Tempest and Shipwreck in Dutch and Flemish Art, Pennsylvania State UP, 1989. The whole book is of great interest, but in Chapters 4 and, especially, 5, entitled Paintings and Interpretive Contexts: Literature and Art, the author provides convincing support. He remarks, of the viewer's reaction to scenes of storm at sea, that they require "an imaginative entrance into their every detail, from the narrative struggles of men and vessels and the characteristics of nature to the formal structure of the work". The Dutch precedent for these paintings by Monamy is found in Porcellis, de Vlieger, Dubbels, Zeeman, Pieter Mulier the Younger, Bakhuizen, and several others, perhaps most especially Bonaventura Peeters. This quotation, p.128, from a poem by Peeters, seems apt:

Like a ship at sea, driven by the waves, first high, then low, where it will sail in doubt due to the fierce sea tempest, so it goes with the condition of men, who are much more inclined to evil than to virtue, whereby they suffer nothing but torment, like sailors who go to sea to fight, who sometimes have pleasure from much captured booty, yet the voyage rarely turns out to their advantage, as mortal terrors full of a thousand horrors catch them by surprise at sea, and sorrows so press in that no one knows where deliverance will be: Behold whether life is other than misfortune, and whether it is not better to flee pleasure than to live here in little joy, which gives birth to much moaning. [For] then man dies peacefully, and hopes to gain after death the good of his soul by salvation. Compare here.

Monamy 29 x 40

Goedde includes a few examples of storms by van de Velde, but these, fine though they are, do not seem to be imbued with the same expressive abandonment as the others. Perhaps their greater realistic precision and sense of restraint is ultimately more satisfying. It seems a pity, nevertheless, that Monamy's work was too unknown to be included in Goedde's discussion. Monamy was significantly more than a simple recorder of maritime conditions.

The etching below, Ships Wrecking on a Coast, is by Joris Hoefnagel, after Cornelis Cort, 1590, from Professor Goedde's study, p.147. Prints and etchings were the main vehicles for the transport of graphic concepts, especially to England, since the Continent was cut off from civilization, and relatively difficult to visit for cultural purposes by any but the most gilded youths. Monamy found inspiration in these prints as much as in the paintings of van de Velde. In fact, they may have been even more influential, since they were much more accessible.

If Cort's coastline is anywhere, it isn't Holland. Below is a collage of photographs taken from the shore of Guernsey, in about 1981. Guernsey's geology differs from Jersey's. There is so far no solid proof that Monamy ever sailed to either Guernsey or Jersey, but with his known paternity, and links with the Durells of Jersey and the de Sausmarez family of Guernsey, it is not unlikely that he would have visited the islands. He knew English Channel sea conditions. As Vertue puts it: "he made many excursions towards the Coasts and seaports of England to improve himself from Nature & those observations for his further improvement".

Could one swear that Monamy had not seen this little emblem, from Zedighe sinnebelden, Joannes a Castro, Antwerp 1694? Image from Goedde's book, p.175. The diagram below illustrates what I meant by writing of "rocks, waves, wind and light" in the 1983 Pallant House catalogue.

Rocks, Waves, Wind, Light

Another variation on the theme. Detail.

The recent publication of serious studies on Hendrik J.Dubbels, by Ulrike Middendorf, 1989; and Ludolf Backhuysen, by Gerlinde de Beer, 2002, produces a better understanding of the antecedents to these emotionally charged storm scenes. They demonstrate Monamy's all-embracing eclecticism, and his search for inspiration well beyond the works of the van de Veldes. As Vertue put it: "other famous masters of paintings in this manner", ie the marine genre. Vertue's "&c" has been stubbornly ignored in favour of the English art historian's blinkered predilection for and insistence on his "VandeVelds". See page here.

complete picture.

the sailor's fate: two
"other famous masters in this manner": Lorrain, Dubbels, Backhuysen, Larson
selection of storms
phlegmatic work
monamy website index

the sailor's fate: detail and signature from Rocks, Waves, Wind, Light


© Charles Harrison Wallace 2001, 2003
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