January 2007: See Footnote

The Signal to Anchor: 2

National Maritime Museum



Besides the light reversal, the other changes to be noted in these two detail sections are several. The viewpoint has shifted slightly to the right from the Yale painting to the Greenwich: the ships have swung to starboard, so that the stern of the principal vessel is directed more frontally at the viewer. This holds true for the other vessels; the small yacht in the right middle distance, and the ship to starboard, half hidden by the central focus of attention. The breeze has freshened, so the flags flutter a touch more bravely, the sails swell and the yacht is heeling more to port. The slight increase in wind is barely noticeable in the sea. The clouds are lighter, and co-operate in harmony with the union flag at the main.

To appreciate the significance of further changes in composition and conception it is necessary to zoom out again, and compare the overall effect of the two canvases.



Although a hint of the underlying structure of the composition is already present in the Yale painting, in the Greenwich version the pyramid has been made explicit, even if not directly obvious at first sight. The shape implies aspiration, built on unshakable foundations.The main ship has been pulled nearer the spectator, and the foreshortening of her many-tiered hull, achieved by shifting the viewpoint to the right, has added depth. The foreground clutter of small boats has been cleared away; and, finally, the entire composition has been very subtly tilted away from the spectator, to induce the sense of naval ascendancy, in every meaning of the word. In other words, the viewpoint has been lowered, and the painting should be hung in a fairly high position, so the spectator has to look up, as if at a signboard.

This painting is the direct ancestor of the 19th and 20th century recruiting poster. It is a work of graphic art approximately 200 years ahead of its time. In the essay written for the 1983 exhibition catalogue I tried to point out that "the apprentice sign-painter would have an ingrained belief that a painting should signify." The signification of Monamy's Greenwich painting is flagged plain enough, for those sufficiently unembarrassed to look. It is the sense of assertion, in the words of Thomas Campbell a century later, that "Britannia needs no bulwarks,/No towers along the steep;/Her march is o'er the mountain waves,/Her home is on the deep"; and the prophecy that "The meteor flag of England/Shall yet terrific burn". It is not easy to put a date on this work. I veer from about 1729 to some time in the early 1730s, in which case it would also have pre-dated James Thomson's "political anthem", which is just as assertively prophetic of Britannia's ascending star:

When Britain first at Heaven's Command,
Arose from out the Azure Main,
This was the Charter of the Land,
And Guardian Angels sung this Strain:
Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never, never shall be slaves.

The most prominent change is the signal to anchor itself, conveyed in the form of the oversized flag flying from the Fleet Admiral's staff. The anchor has traditionally been a symbol of hope for centuries. The "Hope and Anchor" was a public house sign at Grays, in Essex, and other places.

Hope and her anchor feature sweetly in Lewis Carroll's marine epic, The Hunting of the Snark, 1876. Illustration by Henry Holiday.


Larwood and Hotten, in The History of Signboards, 1866, comment: "The anchor was, perhaps, set up rather as an emblem than as referring to its use in shipping. It is frequently represented in the catacombs, typifying the words of St Paul, who calls hope 'the anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast'. St Ambrose says ' it is this which keeps the Christian from being carried away by the storm of life'. Other early writers use it as a symbol of true faith, and one of them has this beautiful idea: --- 'As an anchor cast into the sand will keep the ship in safety, even so hope, even amidst poverty and tribulation, remains firm, and is sufficient to sustain the soul; though, in the eyes of the world, it may seem but a weak and frail support'. It was a favourite sign with the early printers, probably in imitation of Aldus. ..... Sometimes a female figure in flowing garments is represented holding the anchor, in which case it is called the Hope and Anchor."

For whether this picture represents a specific occasion, see the next page:

go to page 3

patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
Samuel Johnson 1775

pyramidal analysis
hope and glory 1       hope and glory 3       what, when, why
monamy website index

Footnote:             End of Story

Unless I'm going blind the lettering on the stern of this boat reads G R. Speculation on this and linked pages about the date of Peter Monamy's Signal to Anchor and event depicted can be chucked in the bin. The only question is whether GI or GII is intended.

Queen of Portugal ---- 1708
Accession of GRI ---- 1714
Accession of GRII --- 1727
Date of Painting ?

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2001, 2007, 2013
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