Museum staff have founded their careers on orthodoxy, and to accept new findings would challenge their authority.


November 2016

Receipt of a Christie's sale catalogue of Important English Pictures, dated Friday 26 April 1985 has encouraged me to mount yet another page on aspects of Monamy. Lots 63-66 in this catalogue consist of paintings by Monamy, or "his circle". Lot 67 is attributed to the studio of van de Velde, but it's probably by Woodcock. Thirty-one years ago the auction house identified the paintings it offered with relatively more scrupulous integrity than recently. The "circle" painting was valued at about a third of the price of the signed pictures. It has recently re-appeared for auction as definitely by Monamy.

Coupled with this review of the sale catalogue is renewed contemplation of the book accompanying an exhibition of British marine painting, taking place between September 15, and December 4, 2016. This exhibition claims to "span the period between the arrival in Greenwich of the Dutch marine painters Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger, in the early 1670s, and J. M. W. Turner's first responses to the Battle of Trafalgar, displayed at his gallery in 1806". It allegedly "contends that the marine painters who created images of the sea and shipping in eighteenth-century Britain were more than mere stylistic inheritors of a Dutch seventeenth-century tradition; rather, they forged a uniquely British approach to their subject."

Monamy Swaine. 49 x 30. NMM
By Monamy's grandson: a fragment of Monamy's legacy.

This contention is true. Unfortunately, the British contribution to marine painting for the first 50 years of the 18th century is hopelessly unresearched and unrepresented in this volume. The text seems more intent on perpetuating the orthodoxy that the van de Veldes were the sole originators of British marine painting; a contention remote from the truth, doggedly repeated by most commentators since Vertue and Walpole. The fact is that the art of the van de Veldes was founded on ship draughtsmanship, whereas the British school was expressionistic, arising out of home decoration and atmospheric communication. Witness the above masterwork by Monamy's grandson. This is amusingly described by our Maritime Museum as ".... decorative rather than of high quality and this ..... may suggest it was produced to be part of a decorative scheme for a domestic setting." The assumed dichotomy between "high quality" and "decorative" is hilarious. In fact, a number of paintings by the van de Veldes were produced as part of decorative schemes, although not exactly for a domestic setting, since the main examples were destined for Ham House.

Art history is not history, but the smug perpetuation of self-regarding "taste". As every culture vulture knows, a work of art is "adapted to sustain aesthetic contemplation in a suitably trained and prepared observer." So, are you suitably trained and prepared ? Are you fully qualified to discuss the history of "art" ?

The climate from 1714, when Cornelius van de Velde died, for about the next 15 years, was exceptionally favourable, in terms of patronage and taste, for native English artists. Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, expressed it in these words: "The new monarch was void of taste it was more natural to George I to be content with, or even partial to whatever he found established, than to seek for improvement and foreign ornament." This climate changed, radically, both politically and aesthetically, during the years following the death of George I in 1727, and during the decade from 1730 to 1740 Monamy would have found that his practice became increasingly hard-pressed, as it met with the censure of groups of self-appointed arbiters of taste, and the importation of quantities of spurious old master paintings from Italy and France, as well as of artists, and other "foreign ornament", from the Continent. These were sufficiently detrimental to native English practitioners to drive William Hogarth, Monamy's close contemporary, to expressions of near-fury. (Much of this observation was excised from another website by a power-mad editor, although the site was devoted to explanatory truth.)

Try a little genealogical research.

Lot 64, 26 April 1985. Indistinctly signed. 21¼ x 26½. "Shipping becalmed offshore at sunset".
Would be more correctly described as "Sun under a Cloud". See below.
Left: "Sun under a Cloud". Right: "Noon". Published 1745-6.

The surest guide to Monamy's lifetime output are the several mezzotint and line prints after his paintings, published during and towards the end of his life. These bear little or no resemblance to anything by van de Velde, father, son or grandson.

Lot 63, 26 April 1985. Signed. 19 x 25. "An evening calm with men-of-war at anchor".
A preferred title would be "Sun rising through Vapour". It's a misty morning. The fisherfolk are stirring.
Another fraction of Monamy's legacy. Not remotely seeking to recycle anything by van de Velde. Anticipates Turner.

28 x 38. Apparently signed. When I saw it in a London dealer's some years ago, it appeared not to have a signature, but perhaps one has since been discovered. Along with a similar work by the same hand, it is utterly unlike anything genuinely by Monamy, of which there are many examples. There is a superficial resemblance to the idea of what a Monamy is supposed to look like.


The above painting is accompanied by the legend at left, from which we learn it was donated as part of The U Collection, evidently by the son, or daughter, of the collectors. Painted before 1730 ? Failing a rigorous forensic examination, to establish its authenticity, I would say, off-hand, it was a fairly modern product of the Chinese Xiamen enterprise. See here for some interesting examples. Dunkirk doubles for Alicante, in the Mediterranean, and why not ?

Next to these facts, there is a fantasy of appreciation. "This is classic, creamy-toned Monamy ... [harking] back to Dutch seventeenth-century models (not least the Van de Veldes) ... at latest of the period 1720-1730 ... an English capriccio in the Dutch tradition" ... puh-lease ! Incredible that an oil painting should be thought of as a photograph. From circa 1983 ? I hope I'm wrong.

The only acceptable internal evidence for a picture's date is that it cannot have been painted before the events it depicts. Otherwise, only forensic examination can truly decide whether it was, or was not, painted yesterday.

sun under a cloud: not sure where the right-hand painting comes from

slavish ----- a word to conjure with !

A curriculum vitæ for Peter Monamy: see here.

Prior to 1980 almost all the published statements about Monamy consisted of guesswork, supposition and prejudice, unsupported by any scholarly research at all. British art history has been grotesquely and mendaciously distorted over the centuries since 1750 by self-regarding arbiters of taste. The Courtaulds, dedicated Huguenot refugees, must be turning in their graves. Roy Strong, in The Spirit of Britain, a narrative history of the arts, 1999, makes this supremely fatuous assertion: "The landscape looms large, and yet ironically England's economic greatness was owed to the sea, to maritime endeavour, but there is no great literature of the sea, nor great school of marine painters."

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath, nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

The Ancient Mariner

Sir Roy, via William Camden, also "firmly located the country's cultural roots as the civilisation of Rome." The country's roots, cultural and otherwise, are actually firmly located in what Jordanes called the womb of nations; and points further west.

far in advance of any roman art

monamy website index
john wood             m.w.knott
harry parker's work of fiction
chronology 1680-1754: published 1983
masters of maritime art
from a jack to a king
eminent experts
howlers and bloomers
extra errors
british art history 1   monamy explained   british art history 2

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2016
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