British 19th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects 33 Who painted 'Merchant Ship on Fire with Crew and Passengers Escaping in the Boats'?

Boat on Fire, Passengers Being Rescued
Topic: Painting description

This artist, British School, c.1800–1820, should be fairly easily identifiable. The ship is probably intended to be a small Indiaman given that the officers and crew all wear quasi-naval blue-jacketed dress and lady passengers in white muslin are among those shown, with possibly army men in red coats in one of the boats.

It has elements of Northcote's melodramatic figure treatments relating to ship losses (‘Wreck of the “Centaur”’ exh.1796, and ‘Loss of the “Halsewell”’, 1786) and de Loutherbourg, but only as influences and I'd be interested to know who the artist is.

The incident may also be a real one, (though probably not the loss of the Indiaman 'Kent' by fire in 1824 in the Bay of Biscay, when other ships were to hand).

The collection comments:
‘This work came to us through a bequest from one of our artist Members, William George Gillies (1898-1973), and unfortunately there were no provenance details that came with it.’
Any further information would be welcome.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK


While this query was pending go-ahead I found a similar watercolour subject on line by Frederick Richard Pickersgill, as below, which I also do not believe is the burning of the 'Kent' as its caption states. However, evidence so far found suggests that FWP only worked in watercolour. A further small clarification is that the size of the ship in the oil suggests it is perhaps more likely to be a West than an East Indiaman in terms of type/voyage and the apparently rather poor drawing of the stern profile may indicate the artist not a mainline marine specialist but someone who dipped into the area occasionally.

Martin Hopkinson,

Could it be by Robert Smirke [1752-1845] who painted a few marine pictures including the Loss of the Halsewell East Indiaman? - you can see an engraving of this on wikipedia? Smirke also painted The Grosvenor East Indiaman and 'Preservation' - in this latter case he collaborated with Robert Dodd [see Francis Jukes and Robert Pollard's aquatints [British Museum] ] Is the Edinburgh painting nearer 1800 than 1820?

Martin Hopkinson,

The possibility that this was a collaboration between a marine specialist and a figure painter, perhaps, should be considered

Martin Hopkinson,

The Pickersgill watercolour must date from at least 20 years later than this oil, and possibly even later than that

Martin Hopkinson,

Is it certain that this vessel is British? The 'Kent' mentioned above became famous after it rescued passengers from a French ship which was set on fire - I am not suggesting that this painting relates to the history of the Kent

However this painting almost certainly was executed after news of an actual incident at sea- and a [long] trawl through the digitised newspapers would probably produce a list of marine fires , among which this particular incident could well be identified.

It is perhaps more probably than not based on some incident, but not (I think) the burning of the 'Kent', which was a bigger ship and with two smaller ones in the offing in less calm weather taking off the large number of passengers -including at least part of a regiment of troops- she was carrying East. I don't see any obvious reason to suppose its not a British ship (albeit no flag included) or a British picture though the awkwardness of the drawing of the ship does not improve with looking, but all that is partly why I'm so far foxed for a credible idea. Smirke images online don't help more than suggest he was in fact rather good at figures, and perhaps better than some of the rather wooden ones here.

Martin Hopkinson,

Another line of research - as Gillies, a far finer painter than that of this picture, never at any time in his career showed any interest in subjects like this in his own well documented work, is it possible that the reason why he owned it was that it depicts an important event in the life of one of his ancestors? Should be trying to find out whether these included a mercantile captain or a shipowner in the early nineteenth century?

Martin Hopkinson,

Pieter, do you think that the treatment of the waves is compatible with those in some of the paintings of Robert Dodd[1748-1815]?

I see quite a lot of Dodd and its doesn't strike me as his sort of subject/ manner. I suspect you are right that identifying the incident may be the best first step, in which the distinctive figurehead may provide a hint once a possible ship name turns up, and this may lead to artist thereafter.

Thanks Charles: if the figurehead had a laurel branch or was flourishing a trumpet that would fit well with 'Fame' -though I can't see such- and I suspect it might be a bet earlier: but its nonetheless one for checking further.

Yes, I found that and Raffles's extensive personal account in the press: what would now help is record of an exhibited picture of the subject.....

Daniel Nelson,

It is reminiscent of the romantic works of Philip James de Loutherbourg such as the battle scenes in the Tate and the National Maritime Museum.

That's a fair point, but more in terms of suggesting date: i.e. influenced by de Loutherbourg, since he's considerably better as both a draughtsman and painter.

Daniel Nelson,

If the quality of the work is below de Loutherbourg could it be more on the level of such artists as Thomas Luny?

In terms of level, roughly speaking, but its not a standard 'marine view' of the sort Luny and his like did (or by him): its a 'drama' (or melodrama) and a matter of either recognizing the dramatist or the incident it represents. Wikipedia has useful summary 'Lists of shipwrecks in [Year]' including by fire, but its a long job to plough through them and then chase further, especially without being sure about the year, and the only visual clue is the figurehead, which appears to be a robed and probably male 'Roman' figure with its arms outstretched. This might suggest, for example, looking for a name like 'Consul' or 'Cicero' in such lists: there was a 'Cato' for example (but in that case a naval flagship lost with all hands in 1783 in the Indian Ocean). On the whole I'm hoping someone will suggest a viable artist or serendipitously spot an exhibition record. Regrettably -as far as I know -no-one has yet subject-indexed Graves et al or produced a word-searchable online version similar to the BL newspaper database: that, by the way, is an unsubtle hint to someone (RA/Mellon Centre/Getty?)!

Could the collection provide a hi-res image for closer examination of the figure groups and figurehead? If (as possibly) the headgear/dress of some suggests 'Indians'/lascars then that may help narrow incidents down.

Splendid! The f/h does look like male and 'Roman' with arms extended as if declaiming or reading from a scroll, though the artist has rather ineptly obscured this by setting the bobstay on the same visual line. The whole crew looks European, with a number of female passengers in various states of distress and the 'Navy-style' blue coats of officers and shorter jackets of warrant officers suggests the ship is perhaps most likely an East Indiaman, though rather small and with no clear sign of the armament most carried. The most informative element is the boat at far right. In the bow a behatted man in a reddish coat makes a commanding gesture aft: to his left three men in civilian dress, one just in his shirt, are engaged in agitated debate, perhaps over the fact that the male figure in the long dark coat bending over to their left is clearly trying to save someone or something in the sea at the end of the line he holds. Behind him a standing woman partly in white clearly implores him to do so as two children cling onto her skirts, with the heads of two more visible to the right. In the stern at far left sits an apparently non-European female figure swathed in plain brown robes, head and face partly covered: my bet is that this is the children's Indian 'ayah' (nurse): what, however, is on the end of the line - not obviously a human perhaps an animal/ favourite dog?

If an Indiaman, the presence of the 'ayah' would suggest one homeward bound, and that of a family to the fore in the general escape, with a commanding paterfamilias prominent (the chap in red) perhaps makes Charles's first shot above a good one: i.e. that it may indeed be the 'Fame' burning in the Indian Ocean on
1 February 1824 with the escape of Sir Stamford Raffles and his family, so a bit more digging for detail on that is clearly on the menu and to see if there is any exhibition record for a painting or paintings of it shortly thereafter.

If the collection has opportunity to look at the canvas closely it would be useful just to check if there is any trace of an inscription , however fragmentary, on the cross bar on the head of the substantial cask floating in the sea at left: I may be seeing some sort of squiggle not in fact there, but it's where I would expect to find something if only initials or perhaps a date. Despite not thinking it typically Luny-ish I will check his list of works and report back....

This is all very intriguing and sounds as if some headway is being made! Many thanks for all your (and others) help thus far.

I've had a close look at the cask and unfortunately cannot see any inscriptions, or traces of, that could provide any clues.

OK, thanks: nothing on Luny's list that fits either. He did a 'Ship on fire' (10 x 14 ins: i.e. much smaller) for a Mr G. Waring in August 1829 and a 'Burning of the Kent' - which it isn't- for a Captain Miller in May 1833 (no size) and there's otherwise nothing which would fit from 1812 to his death in 1835. So not him...

Should anyone care to read it, Raffles's own account of the loss of the 'Fame' is most easily read in his published memoir here, starting at pp. 314-15. of the Fame Raffles&f=false

The ship was indeed a small East Indiaman whose arrival to take him, his family and collections home, he had been awaiting at Bencoolen (Sumatra) where he seems to have been British Governor from 1817 until just before it was ceded to the Dutch in 1824. As the account shows, everyone (just over 40 on board) survived and back to Bencoolen - a distance of about 50 miles- in only two boats (as shown) but the losses included various animals on board that he was taking home including a tiger and a tapir. Circumstantially the case for the picture being of this incident looks increasingly strong but there are clearly details in the picture (like the 'ayah') which suggest some other source of them, be it another published account or 'eyewitness'. Its too early to say if it was painted for him but not impossible, so one question is whether he had any family connection with the previous owner, Wiliam Gillies.

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, there are word-searchable online versions of all 8 vols of the RA 1769-1904 (Graves 1905/6) & the RSA 1826-1916 (Rinder 1917) on Internet Archive; and the Hathi Trust has the British Institution 1806-1867 (Graves 1908)**. There are so many volumes of the RA ones mixed up (and the cataloguing is so unclear), that it may be simpler to find and download the right 8 volumes (as I've done) and search them once saved - they (and the other books) remain searchable when saved as PDFs.

I've actually already done a 'control+f' search in all three works and volumes (10 searches in all) for both 'raffles' and 'fame', though nothing helpful emerged - but the word search works fine, it even throws up '...of America' when looking for 'fame'!

Incidentally, as of yesterday Internet Archive has a new full-text search (in all books) facility in Beta - see words in all books .

[**Both Hathi and IA also have Graves's 1907 Soc of Artists of Great Britain 1760-1791 / Free Soc of Artists 1761-1783.]

Thanks Osmund: useful to know its possible, since my engagement wih the online copies of these standard works so far has proved tortuous. From what you say, finding it as an exihibited subject looks like a long shot unless we can identify a possible artist and I'm stuck there so far....

Martin Hopkinson,

Should we be considering members of the early 19th century family of marine painters, Schetky?

Martin Hopkinson,

There was a sale at Christies in 1875 after the death of J C Schetky [catalogue in the National Art Library] - no access in Kent to Lugt for the exact date

Thanks: wish it were that easy, since in my experience JCS doesn't do this sort of thing in composition and style: the closest of his on the former front is the cutting out of the 'Chevrette' and its rather better.

Martin Hopkinson,

Other members of Schetzky's family painted - but their work is little known, I think

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, while it’s possible this is meant to depict the loss of the 'Fame', I'm not as taken with the circumstantial case as you. Re your analysis of what the high-res shows, I’m not wholly convinced about the ‘ayah’ in the stern of the far right boat – she could be, but I don't think I interpret her clothing or what we can see of her complexion as necessarily non-European, though she is certainly well wrapped-up. You also say later that there are only two rowing boats in the painting (the Fame was only able to launch two) – but in fact there is a third clearly shown on the left beyond the ship, and it is pretty full (I count at least 16 on board). Which leads me to the next problem.

Searches of the BNA & other records show that the first news of the loss of the ‘Fame' (on 2nd Feb 1824) was received in England when an East Indiaman, the ‘Asia’, arrived off Portsmouth on 14th July. The information travelled up to London quickly, and a series of reports appeared in newspapers from the 17th. See attached 1. These early stories were lacking in much detail, but did state correctly that all onboard had been saved, though with the loss of all their possessions. The Morning Post version was soon repeated, more or less verbatim, in papers throughout the country, including Scotland and Ireland. Soon afterwards a letter written by Sir Stamford on 4th Feb emerged, giving a full description of the disaster – perhaps it also came on the ‘Asia’, though it is not stated – and this was presumably intended for publication, as large extracts from it appeared in the London press from 29th July (attachment 2), and once again were repeated nationwide over the next days and weeks. This descriptive letter seems to be almost identical to the one later published in the 1830 Memoir by his widow, and referred to by Pieter:

So it seems that any artist thinking of painting the event would most probably (and very quickly) have had access to a full first-hand account of it – as would anyone who could read, including potential buyers. Despite this there are numerous details in our picture that are different, of which three are major. Raffles wrote that only two rowing boats were launched, that there were 41 people on board, and that all of them were saved – in fact nobody seems to have gone into the sea at all, with the possible exception of the man who was sick below. The painting, however, shows three boats and from 76 to 83 people in total, 9 to 15 of them in or about to be in the water, at least two of whom are already drowned or drowning, with two others in distress. The absence of gun-ports is curious, too – even the basic little BL woodcut illustration (accompanying Glover’s execrable poem!) shows the ship with those, along with the (correct) two boats, each with (correctly) about twenty on board:

I suppose an artist may have wanted to dramatize the scene beyond what actually happened, as artists often do. But if you were trying to make the scene as dramatic as possible, would you not include some interesting detail that really happened - the scorched, roaring Johnson bursting out on deck and being picked up or leaping into the sea? Or some members of the “perfect Noah’s Ark” as they perished - the tapir, the tiger, the splendid pheasants? Moreover, once you accept the possibility of a large degree of artistic licence, you have a problem: the same could be just as true of a portrayal of another incident (including, even, the loss of the 'Kent', though I agree that it does not match the details of that in even more ways). My feeling, all in all, is that this is unlikely to be the loss of the ‘Fame’ – I have no better suggestion, though.

Thanks Osmund. Wise caution: I agree its not a neat fit, for example in the use of three boats rather than two, but the fact that Raffles did publish an account and the 'family and friends group' in the boat at right looks remarkably congruent with that suggests the 'Fame' incident may be connected if only as background. Open verdict at the moment though I'm sure its not the 'Kent' - a regiment of soldiers was involved there with two ships in the offing effecting rescue.

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