Completed British 19th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects, South East England: Artists and Subjects 16 Does this 'Shipping' scene depict the coast off Gravesend?

Topic: Subject or sitter

This 'Shipping' view is certainly in the Thames from the peter boat (a typical Thames fishing boat at the time) shown at bottom right and the shovel- or lighter-headed 'stumpie' Thames barge approaching, in front of a two-decker Royal Naval warship running into the river. The merchant brig behind is flying a Union flag at the foremast which is a signal for a pilot. The ship to left, with the look of a frigate from her armament is more probably an Indiaman from the large stern windows, since it does not seem to be flying a naval pennant and Indiamen often anchored off Gravesend to pick up or discharge passengers – that apparently being the town behind from the distinctive spire of St George's Church.

Is there someone with sufficient local knowledge to confirm this and identify the landscape feature (hill?) on the left? Is it natural? There were quarry workings at the location that later became the riverside Rosherville Gardens at Gravesend, but I can't recall which side of the town they were or whether they threw up an impressive spoil heap.

The collection note:

'Looking at 19th-century prints, I’m fairly convinced that it is Gravesend but I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has thoughts on the location and, in particular, the landscape feature Pieter mentions, located near the centre of the composition.'

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

Completed, Outcome

Jade Audrey King,

The title of this work has been changed to 'Thames Craft and Other Shipping off Gravesend'.

This amend will appear on the new version of the Your Paintings website in January 2016. Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.


Martin Hopkinson,

That hill is quite distant. Could it be as far as away as the Isle of Sheppey with the cliffs of the East Kent coast beyond? An alternative is the ridge at Shorne between Gravesend and the Medway from where Ford Madox Brown painted an early view north across the Thames [also where Richard Dadd murdered his father]. One needs to establish from what part of the Essex coast Serres was painting - clearly not from the point to which the Gravesend ferry used to travel. Much of the land east of Gravesend is low lying, but the Shorne ridge extends to Higham above the Hooe peninsula. It is possible that Serres was combining more than one drawing made in sketchbooks while sailing in the Thames Estuary to create this view. For to see cliffs from the north side one has to go quite far East towards the Essex mouth

Did Serres sometimes work in this way?

Martin Hopkinson,

The apparent beach in the foreground , unless it is a bit of invention by Serres, militates against the idea that the Government Art Collection's painting is of Yarmouth

In answer to Andrea, I think you've identified another view of Gravesend, but this time largely populated by Dutch-type coastal craft (which is nothing exceptional for the south-east at this time), though not exclusively: the fishing boat in the foreground is unmistakeably again a Thames peter boat -so again place-specific since they did not go out of the Thames estuary as a general rule. You'd better suggest it to the National Trust!

Martin Hopkinson,

Could the thing on the left beyond Gravesend be not a hill at all, but one of the recently built forts at the mouth of the Thames and Medway off the Isle of Grain? Having worked on Merseyside I know of the Perch Rock Fort at New Brighton. Were there similar and earlier forts at the Nore and elsewhere?

I don't think so and , subject to correction, the 'Palmerston' forts of the Medway area were post-J.T.Serres (d. 1825): if you look at the National Trust's version/ view currently called Yarmouth in Andrea's last but one comment, it looks just the 'lie of the land' and less prominent. I don't go that way very often, but the whole area is now built up and what looks prominent here may well have just got lost among/ under this.

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, I'm sure you're essentially right, with the apparent "cliff" somewhat exaggerated in this picture versus Andrea's "Gt Yarmouth" one. However, if it's what I think it is, the feature has not been lost to view by development at all - it is the still prominent edge of what is sometimes known as the Thames escarpment - a line of steep-sided folded ridges that drop away sharply down to the salt marshes bordering the estuary from the villages of Cliffe (whose name reflects the geography), High Halstow, St Mary Hoo and beyond. The high point near Cliffe (at around 25 metres) is about 5½ miles from the spire of St George's, Gravesend - that at High Halstow (65 m) three miles further on.

The reason it looks like a waterside cliff is that until around the C12th that's exactly what it was. Thereafter, at Cliffe for example, gradual siltation and/or reclamation created an arc of salt marshes to the village's west, north & east. See (p.4ff.)

The escarpment at Cliffe is now (and was in the early C19th) at least a mile and a half from the estuary, but the pretty-much sea level of this reclaimed land means that from a distance it still appears to drop down to the shore.

I'm attaching a marked-up image from Google Earth that may clarify the lie of the land - the salt marsh extent is approximate. I've rotated it so we are looking due east.

Thanks Osmund, that's a perfectly rational explanation of the topgraphy and within the bounds of artistic latitude as far as the picture is concerned: I should have looked at Google Earth myself rather than relying on memory.

I think that wraps this one up: I suggest that a more informatively descriptive (and web-search friendly) title would be 'Thames craft and other shipping off Gravesend', but the decision of course rests with the collection.

Thanks to all for working it out and I hope to see Andrea's comments on the NT 'Yarmouth' version pop up in due course.

Pieter vdM

Jade Audrey King,

Thanks Pieter.

I am in the process of obtaining a response from the collection.

Splendid: another one bites the dust...

Wonderful boating weather at your Eton destination, so bon voyage....and many thanks for all your help: I'll now pester someone else....