Topic: Subject or sitter

A very nice thing – two hulks alongside a riverine (probably Thames) waterfront with a small shipyard – but it doesn't look like Sheerness so I wonder why that location has been attached?

Hulks which had been laid up ashore and then surrounded by reclaimed land were used as accommodation/storage at Sheerness Dockyard, as well shown on the model of the yard (one of a contemporary set) made about 1774...

However, while that may be why the picture has been so described (if a modern description), the details shown are very different with the main ship having far more domestic superstructure (including in brick) added and still part of a waterfront which is obviously an active one: both the single-masted boats (that close-to apparently a small hoy) and the rowing boat appear to be on a calm waterway rather than a sea front, and the small ship on stocks or a slipway behind suggests – as do the other buildings – a civilian environment, not a Royal Naval yard.

The amount of domestic – and probably civilian – build-up on the main hulk here is, literally, extraordinary and where it might otherwise be is an intriguing puzzle, since one might have expected to have seen other images of such a picturesque subject, but I've no recollection of ever doing so.

Its ex-Sir Bruce Ingram collection – so something which the early NMM (especially Michael Robinson) would certainly have known, which may be how it got the current description. The water shown is also, I now see, enclosed by a revetment wall at the back so it appears to be some sort of inlet, but it still doesn't work convincingly as Sheerness for me so (artistic licence allowed) I'm intrigued by what other options there might be: it may just be a case of keeping a weather eye lifting...

The hulks shown on the 1770s Sheerness model, for which the link is above, do in some cases have similar brickwork chimneys – though I still can't square Sheerness as the location of Marlow's view: but I'm just not sure and so wonder what other options might be.

The collection note:

'Many thanks to Pieter for his comments. I will following his advice and keep an eye out for alternative suggestions regarding the location. If anyone can think of another possible location, do get in touch.'

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

Completed, Outcome

Jade Audrey King,

This discussion has now been closed. The location depicted was confirmed to be Sheerness Dockyard.

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.


Patty Macsisak,

Alternative dockyards mentioned below are Gosport/Devonport and Woolich . Can anyone correlate the ship names below with the ships in the painting?
“John Wesley founder of the Methodist movement in England visited Sheerness in 1767 and found not a town but six old Men of War. These were split up into tenements up to sixty to a ship with little chimneys and windows and each containing a family.”

“In 1801 there were 4 hulks of old warships used for accommodation: Edgar, Nottingham, Orford and Montague housing a total of 186 families 350 children.” Hulk Dwellers of Bluetown.htm

“The Bellerophon was moored at Sheerness from 1815-26, but was renamed after John was disposed of to NSW, becoming then the prison ship HMS Captivity on 5 October 1824; for the next 11 years she was moored off Gosport/Devonport.”

“In 1835 Sheerness petitioned to have the convicts and hulks removed as there were great fears of infections, and so they were removed to Woolwich.”

The HMS Discovery was moved from Sheerness to Woolich, perhaps c. 1835.

Patty Macsisak,

The following link has antique views of Sheerness, Chatham and Woolich dockyards.

This link has a rare view of Sheerness dockyard, as well as Chatham dockyard (click to enlarge).

Antique view of Sheerness...

Antique view of Deptford Dockyard...

Thanks for the comments/links. I have direct access to most of the items raised (esp. prints) in the National Maritime Museum collection. The issue here is a very specific one of a view apparently in an inlet bounded at the far end by fairly substantial walls, at a particular date. It is most likely to be Thames/ Medway and hulks used for accommodation. It may indeed be Sheerness yard - which was walled round in brick by Bernard de Gomme in the late 17th century after the disstrous Dutch raid of 1667 - but if so I can't work out exactly where form the later 18th-c dockyard model that we have: whatever source finally illuminates the matter is going to be very particular.

Patty Macsisak,

Soon after I posted, I watched this video of the Deptford Dockyards c. 1774. At 1:25-1:32 minutes, you can see a configuration similar to what your describe.

In another video, I saw an antique print labeled "Sheerness Dockyard, from the River" that looked promising, but I have been unable to find the same print on-line.

Michael Liversidge,

I cannot offer an identification of the place depicted, but the attribution to William Marlow is something that can be disregarded, I fear. It is quite unlike his normal handling, and apart from two pairs of paintings on copper done for his patron the Duchess of Northumberland 1766-67 of Italian scenes he has never been recorded painting on anything other than canvas. It would interesting to know who the artist may be.

Martin Hopkinson,

Could the waterfront be closer in than either Blackwall - that is Rotherhithe or Wapping? I am very ignorant about 18th century shipbuilding activity either side of the Thames so close to the Pool of London. So this may be a stupid question.

I doubt its that close in to central London - not a place one found this sort of adapted hulk-or none I've seen any illustration of. There were floating convict hulks late in the century off Woolwich, but out in the river and not with brick chimneys. I suspect that Sheerness has been attached to the image because we know there was this sort of arrangement there but not necessarily a known image to corroborate this specific one: the 1770s model of the yard shows a different configuration, or at least I've not been able to square the circle with what's on that - though the red brick wall at the back was the sort of wall that surrounded the yard proper. I'll pass on to enquire if any of the fortification specialists have any idea.

Since Michael Liversedge says its not Marlow, we also need other artist suggestions, but I'm afraid nothing comes immediately to my mind. Thoughts?

Jonathan Coad, who is the leading current authority on RN Dockyards has commented: 'I confess that I had always assumed this was Sheerness and that topographical/hulk discrepancies were due to artistic licence. The difficulty in proposing an alternative location is that other candidates seem even less likely….'

Looking again at details of the c. 1774 model of Sheerness by George Stockwell (National Maritime Museum, SLR2148) there is in fact a section of the perimeter of which the painting might be an 'artistically licensed' version, but at an earlier date, before the hulks on the right were fully enclosed by land infill. This is shown on the attached images. The identifying points are (a) the small gatehouse, arched doorway and gate pillar immediately to left of the single-masted hoy with its sail raised: on the model these are to the left behind the inset compass rose (the main carriage gateway, right-hand gate-house and footway door being hidden by the boat's sail); (b) the taller twin-floor building behind the perimeter wall, with three bays of windows, to right of the boat's sail, with another lower one abutting to its right: on the model this is also clearly visible. though with the chimney at back right rather than left; (c) the large rectangular, grey (wooden) storehouse shown behind the small vessel being built in the picture, and also very clear to the right, abutting the dock revetment, on the model. The smaller timber buildings shown fronting the gate on the waterfront in the model are not present in the painting, and others to right by the storehouse in the painting are not on the model, but these and other differences could be down to comparative dates (the picture being earlier) as well as artist choice, since dockyards were always in a state of change, especially as far as timber structures were concerned.

In short, having chased this round the houses, the previous identification of place as Sheerness seems most likely: who the painting is by remains for confirmation and, whoever it is , before the early 1770s.

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Can we wrap this up? I suggest a slight amendment to the title for clarity as 'Hulks at Sheerness Dockyard': or 'Accommodation hulks at Sheerness Dockyard' since that's what they are. By the time they were laid up on the mud and started having brick chimneys etc they were beyond floating use and these -or successors-, as the model shots above show, were made part of the landfill of the 1770s.

When this is done we can raise a separate query on who it might be by if not Marlow, since that is now in issue, unless anyone wants to pitch in here.

Louis Musgrove,

One observation- the Little Barge on the left is of a Dutch type.

Jade Audrey King,

I have asked the Government Art Collection to comment on the title.

As keeping in mind the predicted date of the work (perhaps before the early 1770s) may compliment more research on the artist attribution, perhaps this discussion could be left open and the conversation geared toward the attribution and date.

Government Art Collection,

We are inclined to not to make relatively minor alterations to titles of works in fact, as there is also the issue of consistency, but many thanks for the comments on the work, which will be added to our information files.


Thanks Philippa: quite understood and no problem.

Jade - I tend to think we might be better to start over on the artist matter, as per separate e-mail exchange-but leave with you.