MASTERPIECE


37½ x 45½: signed: national maritime museum

An INDIAMAN and a ROYAL YACHT
in a STORM off a ROCKY COAST with a CASTLE

Several years ago I found myself haranguing an old school-fellow, David Burnett, about the works of Monamy. Burnett, Excellent publisher of Ludlow Town, graduate of Jesus, Cambridge, was formerly a first-rate cricketer, footballer, hockey-player, sprinter, and fearsome pugilist; and also a superb musician, and is now a discriminating judge of wine and art. After hearing me out, he reached for the 1980 Dictionary of Sea Painters and flipped through the pages. Finally he stopped at Colour Plate XI, page 117. "You must be right," he said, "that" (indicating the spectacular scene above) "is a very fine painting". Contemplation of this performance over the years has persuaded me that I cannot disagree. As a piece of marine art, it seems to me a significant advance on anything produced by van de Velde, and far to surpass any of the overpuffed "marines" of Scott. Repeat: Scott was a topographical painter.

Two such opinions might converge by accident, or design. In British Painters of the Coast and Sea, however, Charles Hemming adds unpartisan and objective weight. After an account of the calms, storms and other works of the van de Veldes, p.14, he has this to say: "These calms and storms were perpetuated by members of his (the Elder van de Velde's) studio in London: his son, William, his brother or son, Cornelis, Jan van de Hagen, Isaac Sailmaker, Jacob Knyff, and Peter Monamy".

The statement is a little confusing, since it seems to suggest that Sailmaker, Knyff and Monamy worked in the van de Velde studio, and although Jacob Knyff (1638-1681) may have done, Sailmaker and Monamy surely didn't. Cornelis has been thought to be almost certainly the son of the Younger, but David Cordingly also mentions the possibility of the Elder van de Velde having a brother called Cornelius, which Horace Walpole had no doubts about.

Hemming then goes on "Of these, Peter Monamy (1681-1749) had by far the greatest talent. Monamy excelled in original variations of calms and coastal storms, such as An Indiaman and a Royal Yacht in a Storm off a Rocky Coast with a Castle, but he perpetuated rather than advanced what van de Velde had done."

Like Oliver Warner and John Wood, Hemming has actually looked at one or two of Monamy's paintings; but, like them, he is still shackled by the leaden inertia of earlier authorities ("came from the Channel Islands" etc, p.25), and lacks the confidence to contradict outright, or even fully to grasp the art-historical milieu. This painting is far more than an extension of the van de Velde studio; it does, as he says, "excel in original variation", and it is only one of the many instances which demonstrate how the exceptional breadth of Monamy's range penetrates into areas well beyond his contemporaries, and later practitioners, not excluding Brooking. It is so much an advance on what van de Velde had done that it reaches Turner.


detail

It is scarcely enough, however, merely to voice an opinion, and go no further than to use words like "good", "excellent", and so forth. Some analysis, or attempt to indicate why a painting is captivating, interesting, satisfying, needs to be made. An observation by Pears is relevant here: "Walpole was not a man who was ever without a very definite opinion; his letters are strewn with commendations and condemnations of paintings he had seen. But ... he did not think it appropriate to lay out the details of the reasoning and feelings that led him to this assessment. Rather, in common with all English writers, he avoids any form of analysis and confines himself largely to assertions and historical account. Also ... he generally comments on the abilities of the painter, and rarely refers to individual pictures. ... As Lipking points out, the object of much of English writing specifically on works of art was the patron and collector, not the public at large, and he detects in the writings of Walpole particularly a patronising attitude to the artists themselves." (Iain Pears, The Discovery of Painting, 1988, p.202; L.Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-century England, 1970.)

Since Horace Walpole is probably one of the last people in the world I would wish to resemble, I must try to explain what it is that attracts me about this painting. In no reasoned order, here are some of the thoughts it produces.

There is an immediate perception of the contrast between the immensity of the forces of nature and the fragility of man and his works, notwithstanding the apparent solidity of the ships. These otherwise sturdy constructions are rendered with a sensitive delicacy. The eye is drawn to the manner in which the three masts of the larger vessel are splayed apart at their tops, as the wooden craft is twisted by the sea. The shiver in the sail of the plunging yacht, as it faces straight into the wind, reflects a shiver of apprehension at the sublimity of the scene, in the sense employed by Edmund Burke. The maritime world is a stage, emphasised by the darkness of the foreground proscenium, with its rococo curves, and dramatised by the large splash of central light. It has been remarked how the marine artists of the 18th century would ring the changes on the detail passages of their compositions, suggesting a musical parallel. Here, the combination of these passages seems so felicitous that they can be separated and set apart from one another; still retaining their force, yet cohering within the wider canvas.

These sections of the painting can be seen to be singularly fine on their own, while each leads the gaze to the next, extending it both horizontally and into the depths of the picture.


The fact that the two vessels can be set at virtual right angles to each other, and still produce an effect of recession into the distance, seems to me startling in its originality, and I do not believe I have seen anything to precede or follow it. Elsewhere I have suggested that in this painting Monamy seems to be anticipating Vernet. What is further remarkable is that almost everything that comes to mind about the work postdates it, often by some decades. The serpentine line formed by the foreground contrast between light and dark strongly recalls Hogarth's line of beauty and grace, but Hogarth did not publish his Analysis of Beauty until 1753, four years after Monamy's death.

In Turner 1775-1851, a catalogue published in conjunction with a Tate Gallery exhibition 1974-75, a famous painting, "The Egremont Sea Piece", first shown at the RA in 1802, is commented on as follows: "Here ... Turner applied the Poussinesque principles of composition ... to the tradition of marine painting in England, which, based on the work of the van der Veldes in the later seventeenth century, had continued more or less unaltered until the end of the eighteenth. Once again, however, Turner uses the selective fall of light to clarify his design ..." There could hardly be a more striking instance of "the selective fall of light" than in this work by Monamy, anticipating Turner by some 75 years. See here.


detail

It is difficult to locate the picture chronologically within the body of Monamy's known oeuvre, bearing in mind the naïvety of many of his other works, so much so that at times I have doubted his authorship, and felt that somehow a later painting by another artist might have acquired his imprimatur. But, if so, who could that be? No-one, is the answer; and there is enough evidence, I believe, of other storm scenes approaching it, to conclude that it is in fact by Monamy, perhaps during what is beginning to look like a "delicate" period, including calms, beginning about 1726. I am reminded again of the clarity and accuracy of Marcel Brion's evaluation: "The sensitive and agitated seascapes of Peter Monamy".

These scenes were produced by someone who knew, as I do, exactly what the sea can be like. One of my vivid memories is of a four hour electric storm, experienced in a small yacht, a night's sail south of New York, eight days up the seaboard from Fort Lauderdale in 1989.


Country Life, 28/5/1959. Signed. 17 x 36½

The castle, left, is not unreminiscent of the castle in the NMM painting.

storm selection
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© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2002
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