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Essay – Velde, Willem van de – the Younger – A fifth rate English warship, possibly the Holmes, preparing to leave anchorage

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Essay - Velde, Willem van de - the Younger - A fifth rate English warship, possibly the Holmes, preparing to leave anchorage

Two artists, father and son, both called Willem van de Velde, dominated the field of Dutch marine painting during a long period of the seven - teenth century and well into the eighteenth century. Willem van de Velde the Elder (Leiden 1610 - London 1693) and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger (Leiden 1633- London 1707) were famous for their drawings and oil paintings of ships, coastal scenes and navy activities at sea. The son specialised in oil painting. Characteristic of his work is his accuracy, combined with a subtle rendering of light and reflections on the water and on the sails of the ships. This, combined with a talent for composition produced an oeuvre of paintings that portray the maritime world of his time in an almost inimitable way. In England, where the Van de Veldes settled in 1672 Van de Velde the Younger laid the foundation for the flourishing school of British marine painting, a tradition that lasted into the 19th century. The Van de Veldes came from a family of inland bargemen in Leiden. One year after the son’s birth, in 1634, they moved to Amsterdam, in those days the most important port of Europe and a centre of the arts, including maritime print making and painting. Van de Velde the Elder, a talented self-taught draughtsman, created a niche for himself by making so-called pen paintings, time consuming works, mainly sold to a wealthy clientele. The training of his son consisted of drawing lessons at home and a training period (1650-1651) in the studio of Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653) in Weesp, near Amsterdam. Around the middle of the 1650s father and son worked together in their studio in Amsterdam, producing pen paintings and oil paintings. The drawings made at sea by the Elder, served as documentation for both artists. Initially, signed products from the Van de Velde workshop bore the WvV(elde) studio mark, regardless of whether they were made by the father or the son. In 1672, in the middle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the artists settled in England, after an invitation by king Charles II. The king granted the Van de Veldes a royal pension and assigned them the Queen’s House in Greenwich as a studio, in particular for making designs for tapestries. In England the careers of the Van de Veldes took slightly different directions. The Elder devoted most of his time to the marketing of their firm, whereas the son was in charge of the studio. As a consequence they started to use signatures of a more personal character, in the Younger’s case by signing his paintings as WvVJ, or WVVeldeJ in many cases on the back of the canvas, as is the case with the painting discussed here (fig. 1).1 Ship’s portrait This painting in an upright format is a so-called ship’s portrait. The ‘sitter’ is a ship, occupying the right foreground, port quarter view. She is surrounded by several small vessels on her port and starboard side. In the background on the left a large warship fires a gun as a salute. On the horizon a coastline with low hills is visible. On the ship the crew is busy hoisting sails and raising the anchor on the port side. The flat surface of the water and the sagging sails make it clear that there is hardly any wind. Apparently the ship is waiting for more wind and the sloop on her port side could be preparing to tow the ship to a better position to leave the anchorage. There can be no doubt that this is a small ship of the Royal Navy, with the English ‘red ensign’ on the stern and a similar red pennant on the main mast.2

This is one of the smaller navy vessels, a ‘ fifth rate’, the

penultimate class of ships in the navy.3

Fifth rates usually carried a maximum of 30 guns. The ship in the painting seems to be armed with 24 guns, but it is difficult to see, as several gun ports are either closed or absent. There are several indications that this is the Holmes, a ship of 220 tons with 24 guns, bought by the Royal Navy from Sir Robert Holmes in 1671.4

He was a famous admiral, who took part in the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars. One of his claims to fame (in England) is ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, the massive burning of the Dutch merchant fleet in the roads of the island of Terschelling, August 1666. This exploit was revenged by the Dutch less than a year later during the Medway Raid (June 1667). A peculiar feature is the stern, richly decorated with gilded wood carving. There is no royal coat of arms, as is usual on all vessels built for the navy. Instead there is a sculpted decoration of a man, sitting on a dolphin’s back: Arion, the mythological Greek musician who was saved by a dolphin. This unusual decoration indicates that this ship originally had a different function. Holmes may have used her as a kind of yacht, before he sold the ship to the Navy. The open stern gallery also points to this private use. A typical Van de Velde When the painting was sold at an auction in 2018, no signature or dating was found and its maker was catalogued as a ‘Follower of Willem Van De Velde II’.6

After careful removal of the relining canvas a signature in large letters (WVVelde J) was found on the back of the original canvas (see illustration). But even before this discovery there were good indications to accept this painting as a work by the master himself. The painting was executed accurately, in rich colours and with a directness that is typical of paintings entirely made by the master himself. A fine detail is the drawing-like three-master in the distance, reminiscent of Van de Velde’s crisp ink drawings. With its clear sky and the light of the slightly filtered sun on the unfurling sails, this painting is unmistakably a good example of Van de Velde’s work of his early years in England, c. 1675. Van de Velde made several ship’s portraits with a similar compo - sition: a ship, slightly off-centre, seen on the stern, with smaller craft around it and a larger ship in the distance. The first time Van de Velde applied this scheme was probably in 1673, when he produced a number of paintings for Ham House in Richmond, including a similar painting of a small warship.7

The National Gallery in Washington recently acquired a second version of that painting, also signed and dated 1673, substantially painted by Van de Velde himself (fig. 2).8

Since the early 1670s this composition became Willem van de Velde’s standard model for portraits of a single ship, including this fine painting of a fifth rate, possibly the Holmes. [RD]