Completed British 18th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects 34 Could this scene depict the capture of the Bienfaisant and burning of the Prudent at Louisbourg in 1758?

Topic: Subject or sitter

The castellations to the harbour wall on the left are similar to those around the fort at Louisbourg. Does anybody recognise any of the buildings on the quayside?

Cliff Thornton, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The title has been changed from 'A Ship on Fire' to “The Burning of the ‘Prudent’ and the Capture of the 'Bienfaisant' in the Harbour of Louisbourg, 26 July 1758”. A note about the attribution to William Marlow has been added to Art UK.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Dr Pieter van der Merwe has commented: 'There are boats lying off the port bow of the burning ship so it might be a wartime event, but the only so-far known print of the incident by Canot after Paton is rather different and more convincing on the detail of the fortifications etc: no images on National Maritime Museum public pages, though we have it, but this is the British Museum's Why it should be down as Marlow I also cannot imagine: possible I suppose if there's a signature on it but not his normal sort of thing though I can't think who at the moment if not.'

Michael Liversidge,

In answer to PvM's query about the attribution, that is down to me I fear! Still sound in my view...I made it on the strength of similarities to other nocturnal conflagrations by Marlow - there are a few, but at present all my files are locked down in the university and we are unable to access the building, and I am locked down by a course of chemo-therapy treatment continuing to August. There's a burning ship in a painting by WM in Guildhall Art Gallery. I like the idea of somewhere distant - it's an early work, and among WM's pictures from early-1760s are several scenes of Cuba and places in the 7 Years' War which he never saw, but for which he relied on drawings by others for the topography.
Hope that makes some sense.....

Thanks to both. I wasn't aware of Marlow as a 'night fires' man -or indeed Paton: its not an area where one is usually making comparisons -though its not hard to think of others (e.g by Samuel Scott)- so probably worth some further thought.

While chasing something else I found reference to the following two paintings by Richard Paton of the cutting-out and capture of the 'Prudente' and the 'Bienfaisant' in the harbour of Louisbourg on the night of 26 July 1758.

1. Oil on canvas, 16 1/ x 24 1/2 in. in the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. This appears to be the source of the print (or a version of the source) to which there is a link to the BM copy in David Saywell's note above at 30/04/2021 15:58.

I've tried to find it on the ROM collections pages but they seem to be 'down' today. The point to note from the print is that the Louisbourg church at centre is more 'chapel-like' with what appears to be wooden cupola-topped bell-tower as you would expect in an early American seaboard colonial setting and because the print is signed by Paton we can be sure the oil is at least 'his version'

2. Another attributed to Paton but not the same view, oil on canvas 37 1/2 x 54 in. was sold at Sotheby's, London, 8 March 1989, lot 10, and bought for the National Archives of Canada by its London office.

The NAC acquisition/ ref. no is 1990-078 DAP, but it's audit level only with no image included.

I attach below a snap from the NMM photo archive card (1989): as you can see it's almost a reverse shot of the one in question here, looking into the harbour with the ship (the captured 'Bienfaisant') coming out seen in bow view rather than looking out with it seen in stern view. The burning 'Prudente' is shown in differing aspects in the two but both also share (this time) 'gothic' church and spire at differing scales and angles.

I think the subject of the Derby puzzle picture is therefore as Cliff Thornton suggested 'The capture of the "Prudente" (burnt) and "Bienfaisant" in Louisbourg harbour, 26 July 1758'. As the text of the Paton print makes clear it was an action in which boats were sent into the harbour at night, so both the ships shown were French though with English colours over French showing on the latter as the captors took her out.

The matter of artist looks a bit more of a puzzle. The fact the church in both the Derby picture and that now in NAC differs from the only clearly 'signed' Paton version, and that Michael Liversidge thought the Derby one early Marlow keeps the question open on both, let alone the other rather good one that Derby has from a completely different viewpoint.

Rerettably Michael is beyond reach since he died, I think in July last year, during the 'chemo' that he mentioned in his final message above, so we'll have to leave that open for the moment.

Perhaps Derby could just check both their pictures for any clues written on them -and consider revising the title of the one Lucy points to: it's clearly the same incident (during the siege of Louisbourg).

Marcie Doran,

I have contacted the ROM, Pieter, regarding their painting by Paton. Hopefully I will be able to get images of the front and back.

If the painting by Paton purchased from Sotheby’s by the Government of Canada is in Ottawa, I will try to find it and obtain an image of the front and back.

Thanks: well found - I seem not to have dug deep enough and if in a 'box' its certainly in a big one.

Its metric dimensions are 95.3 x 137.2 cm of the 37 1/2 x 54 in. when sold in 1989 is correct. Thats very close to the H 100.4 x W 137.2 cm of the other one at Derby (ref 1950-109) that Lucy brought into play, and they could be the same hand.

Richard Paton exhibited two paintings of this subject:

1. At the Society of Artists in 1763, (no. 88), 'The burning of a French ship of war and towing away another by the boats of Admiral Boscawen's fleet in the night, and under cover of a fog.'

2. At the RA in 1779 (no. 232), 'A view of the burning of the Prudent of 74 guns in Louisburg harbour, in the island of Cape Breton, and of cutting out the Bienfaisant of 64 guns, and towing her into the North harbour, which was performed by the boats of Admiral Boscawen's fleet under the command of Captains Laforey and Balfour.'

The engraving ( is probably from the first, or a version of it -i.e. the same composition as the oil now in ROM - since it is dated 1771.

If Derby's ref. 1950-109 and the other now in the National Archives in Canada are by Paton, then one of them is likely to be the second, since both are significantly larger than the one directly in question here with a Marlow attribution from Michael Liversidge.

Marcie Doran,

Here is a work by Paton that was in a Christie’s auction in 2015.

'The action between Admiral Boscawen’s fleet and the French fleet in Louisburgh Harbour, 26th July 1758'

16 ½ x 26 ¾in. (42 x 68cm.)

Is this the ROM work?

My e-mail to the ROM is now with ROM Images department.

That's a version of the ROM one, or which the image in the NMM file is a small and more green/blue 1987 colour press cutting , possibly deceptive.

Print (plate size, from NMM copies) - 415 x 612 mm
ROM oil reported as - 420 x 622 mm (16.5 x 24.5 in.)
Christie's oil - 420 x 680 mm (16.5 x 26.75 in.)

Derby Museums and Art Gallery,

Pieter, I have managed to take a look at the painting ref 1950-109 (attributed to Paton). There are no inscriptions on the back; indeed, it looks to me as though it's been relined. What I did find on the back was a label stating that the painting had previously been in the possession of George E. E. Monckton of Bacton Manor, Hereford, dated 1936. I admit, I got a bit excited by this (and derailed) and have just spent most of the afternoon following my curiosity over whether or not this owner might have been related to THE Monckton. It seemed too good an idea to be true. I now believe he was descended from a half brother of Lt.-Gen. Hon. Robert Monckton, the Hon. Edward Monckton (1744 - 1832). Assuming I have done my research correctly.

Anyway, this is just an interesting tidbit really. I thought I would also share some snaps (not great, alas) of some of the details of this painting. It really is very good.

In the meantime, I will try and find an opportunity to look at the back of the other (attrib to Marlow), which is currently on the wall at one of our sites.

Thanks very much: from the details that looks Paton-ish enough for the attribution it has but it would be interesting to make some more comparisons.

A closer look at the Society of Artists and Free Society listing brings another name into play for the subject, the comparatively little seen Robert Wilkins: b. London c.1740 - died c.1790.

He received a 30-guinea premium from the Society of Arts in 1765 and showed at the Free Society from that year to 1778 and the RA, 1772-79, painting 'naval actions, ships on fire and moonlight scenes' according to Redgrave, though also other naval shipping views of which there are two on Art UK.

He showed three of the 'Prudente'/'Bienfaisant' action at the Free Society:

1769, no. 234 from 'Cecil's Court, [still there, off] St Martin's Lane' ; 'The boats of the fleet under the command of Admiral Boscawen burning the Prudent, and towing off the Bienfaisant, two French ships of war in the harbour of Louisbourg'

1770, no. 264 from 'Ship Yard, Temple Bar'; 'The burning the French ship [sic] in the harbour of Louisbourgh by Admiral Boscawen'

1772, no. 220 (same address); 'The burning the Prudent [sic] in the harbour of Louisbourgh'

Two of his non-specific conflagrations also appeared at the Free Society:
1771, no. 275, 'A ship on fire , in a seaport [by moonlight]'
1778, no. 140, 'A ship on fire in the harbour'

I've not found a night scene of any sort by him but there is this fire one:

I'm not at all sure he's a 'possible' here, but worth pointing out.

This version of the Derby picture in question was sold by Parker auctions at Farnham, Surrey, on 17 January 2021, Lot 42, with a Marlow attribution and the title 'A ship ablaze at night in a town harbour', :

There is a prior sale label on the back as Lot 513 giving its canvas dimensions as 38 x 43 cm and a cutting from what may be the previous catalogue, illustrating the Derby picture as another version with a note that Michael Liversidge confirmed the attribution as Marlow. The dimensions of the Derby one are similar: 36.8 x 52.1 cm

I can find no other ship-on-fire images by Marlow. This is a more urban conflagration by him:,_1779,_by_William_Marlow.JPG

...and this is the other version of it in the Guildhall Art Gallery which must be the one that Michael Liversidge was slightly misremembering as a 'ship on fire' there (in his note above of 21/06/2021 12:08):

Marlow's shipping is usually part of more sophisticated harbour and river views, mostly smaller craft than full-scale (merchant) ships and rarely if at all 'naval'. Nor does he have a track-record for naval actions, even if - as Michael said - he did do some early copy-based things from the Seven Years War based on other people's transatlantic topographical images (though I have not found web examples)

Marlow was born in 1740 so it at least seems unlikely he could have done the 'Prudente/ Bienfaisant' action as an 'early work' from any such exemplars for it: the only known print is Paton's (published in 1771) after one of the two versions of the composition he showed at the Society of Artists in 1763. Marlow was then 23, and 31 when the print came out, and the Paton is anyway entirely different. Paton's next exhibited one (whichever it was of that in NAC or the other attributed at Derby) was in 1779.
The three recorded by Robert Wilkins are 1769, 1770 and 1772, so Marlow was rising 30 when the first was shown. The title of the first by Wilkins includes the 'towing off [of] the Bienfaisant', suggesting this aspect was more prominent than in either the Derby picture or the version sold by Parker's in 2021. Wilkins's other two titles , however, are practically the same and fit both the Derby and Parker pictures well:

1770, no. 264; 'The burning the French ship [sic] in the harbour of Louisbourgh by Admiral Boscawen'
1772, no. 220; 'The burning the Prudent [sic] in the harbour of Louisbourgh'
The two other canvases by Wilkins on Art UK are 53 x 79 cm and 57 x 76 cm - also not particularly large.

Notwithstanding Michael's opinion of how Marlow painted flames, it looks like Wilkins was a man with a track-record for doing ships on fire, including at night, and naval subjects to a much greater degree.

We don't have enough parallel examples either by him or of the 'early Marlow' to which Michael alluded to come to a definite conclusion yet but I suggest the circumstantial case is weakening for Marlow in possible favour of Wilkins.

Paton probably had better sources for Louisbourg than either Marlow or Wilkins, which might help explain the apparently stone ‘gothic’ church in the Derby version, especially in Wilkins’s case since Michael’s claim for Marlow doing Seven Years War subjects was his use of topography provided by others. In the Parker picture the tower is of different form.

Marcie Doran,

Yesterday morning I met with a kind archivist at the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) building in Gatineau, Quebec, and viewed the Paton painting puchased at Sotheby’s in 1989 as lot 10 – accession number LAC 1990-78-1. In advance of my visit, she had reviewed this discussion and prepared a package of useful material for me, some of which is attached. She also showed me the print.

Unfortunately, the backing of the painting is modern. And, it has a glass protective cover that made it extremely difficult to take photos. The attached photos (nine) are the best that I could manage – I do realize that my face, hands and iPad are in some of them.

Marcie Doran,

Regarding my comment of 26/07/2022 01:34, the archivist at LAC advised me that the Paton painting from the Christie’s ‘Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana’ auction of April 1, 2015, lot 59, is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as item 2015-90. She provided me with the attached extracts from the catalogue as well as the record for the painting.

Thanks for all that Marcie:useful that you are in that quarter. I'll try and go through it in the next few days though its doesn't look as if its going to solve the authorship of the Derby picture.

These may also be relevant to our puzzle picture: they are both claimed as Charles Brooking, but that looks suspect to me (though I have yet to look at the YCBA entries):

This one also 'attributed to Brooking' looks like a lesser hand and might be another of the Louisbourg action:

Marcie Doran,

I have attached a document that was quickly provided to me by the Rights & Reproduction Coordinator at the ROM after I contacted the ROM today. She has granted me permission to post it on this discussion. Her office had not received my original request. The image of the ROM's object number 956.94 is related to item 1 in Pieter's comment of 23/07/2022 16:29.

1 attachment

Marcie, could you perhaps ask your ROM contact if they could confirm canvas dimensions for their picture? The NMM record has it as 420 x 622 mm (16.5 x 24.5 in.) and there is only frame size on the record sheet you posted. Odd that they have no artist name there, since beyond reasonable doubt by Paton.

It looks as though he did two near identical versions of about the same size, both now in Canada; at ROM (whose reference number suggests it may have been obtained in 1994) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (acquired in 2015).

One was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763 and perhaps the second used for making the engraving that Canot exhibited at the RA in 1770 but which has a 1771 issue date. Only better photos than we have might resolve which was used for the plate. AGNS says a white flag in the print is missing in their painting, which might also be a clue, though they all seem to be there even in the poor ex-Winkworth Canadiana sale image you provided at 09/08/2022 17:27.

If we accept that the larger and variant versions of the incident at Derby (ref: 1950-109) and in the National Library and Archives of Canada are also both by Paton then one of them is unaccounted for in exhibition terms -since he only appears to have showed one other than that of 1763, at the RA in 1779: NLAC claim it's theirs, but without other evidence to support.

That still leaves us with the original problem regarding the 'Marlow' image at Derby and the version of it sold by Parker's at Farnham in January 2021. All we can additionally say so far is that, other than MIchael Liversidge's now unpursuable claim for Marlow (who never exhibited a picture of the subject), the little documented Robert Wilkins (c.1740-c.1790) exhibited three and had a track-record for more generic 'ships on fire at night'.

So remaining lines of enquiry include finding better visual evidence re: Wilkins in particular and being sure both the Derby and NLAC pictures are Paton - though both look like it.

Derby Museums and Art Gallery,

Hi all,

Further to Pieter's conclusions, and following a brief email conversation with him, I'd like to suggest that we retain 'attributed to Marlow' but add a note to the effect that, whilst this was Michael Liversidge's suggestion, there is no other evidence that Marlow painted the subject. Robert Wilkins painted the subject three times but parallels by him are yet to be found that would suggest convincingly that this (or the other recorded version) might be by Wilkins.

Marcie Doran,

Please do not close this discussion. Pieter’s questions (03/12/2022 17:00) are in the hands of a curator at the ROM and it will be easier to post a comment if this discussion remains open.

Marcie Doran,

I’ve sent a message to the ROM, Marion, and have copied you on it.

We are two months on without response from ROM re: their Paton but whatever that might be, or its status as regards the other Paton version at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, it is not going to get us forward with the picture at Derby which is the focus of this discussion.

Issues relating to the two in Canada are also 'not Art UK meat' so -given that I've provided a list of all the known oils of the Bienfaisant/Prudent incident (03/12/2022 18:45) it's perhaps time to close this.

Perhaps -if the Marlow attribution remains (as Derby wish)- a note should say that 'The late Michael Liversidge suggested early Marlow as an attribution for this picture and, by implication, for another recorded version, although other scenes of ships on fire by him are lacking. A possible alternative, but again lacking sufficient examples for comparison, is the little known Robert Wilkins (c.1740-c.1790) who exhibited three versions of present action at the Free Society of Artists in 1769, 1770 and 1772, as well as other compositions of ships on fire at night, which seem to have been a speciality of his.'

... three versions of the present action...

and the title to change to something like: 'The Burning the 'Prudent' and capture of the 'Bienfaisant' in the harbour of Louisbourg, 26th July 1758'