Earlier this week I posted a short blog about the cutting-out of the French corvette Chevrette in 1801. I had come on this incident through finding in an 1894 publication a most dramatic engraving depicting it. It was based on a painting by somebody referred to simply as “de Loutherbourg”. Given that the name was an unusual one for an apparently British artist I decided to find out more. Not only did I discover a quite fascinating and unexpected story, but the quest introduced me to a number of other artists of the 18th and early 19th Centuries who specialised in maritime subjects. Several of these had stories – and backgrounds – as unusual as de Loutherbourg’s and I’ll return to them in later blogs. It is through the eyes of these men that we have come to form our mental pictures of the Age of Fighting Sail. It came as a surprise to me to learn that many of these painters, far from being studio-bound, had direct experience of life at sea, and even of combat, as I’ll tell of in future posts.
It was during the 18th Century that Britain
gained the global-power status which was to be confirmed during the
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Through much of the period the performance
of British land forces was patchy, and occasionally disastrous. Where at all possible Britain avoided land
campaigns and instead used the wealth accruing from her maritime trade to
subsidise European powers – such as Prussia – to do the fighting on her behalf.
In establishing commercial as well as
naval supremacy it was the Royal Navy which was to prove the decisive weapon,
one unrivalled not only as regards power and size but as regards professionalism
and bloody-minded dedication to victory. This fact was widely recognised throughout
British society and, even if there was reluctance to provide adequate
remuneration and acceptable terms of service, the Navy and its personnel were
held in high esteem. Songs such as Rule
Britannia (1740) and Heart of Oak
(1760), both still loved and heard, bore witness to this. It was therefore no
great surprise that painters specialising in naval subjects should find a ready
market for their paintings with the more affluent, and for engravings of them
for the less prosperous. It is in this context that de Loutherbourg and other
artists like him should be seen.
|de Loutherbourg's "The Glorious First of June"|
Lord Howe's victory 1794
|de Loutherbourg in laterlife|
de Loutherbourg’s increasing fascination with the theatre led him to accept an offer by David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day (who wrote Heart of Oak ) to move to London. Here, at the Drury Lane Theatre, de Loutherbourg designed scenery, costumes and, most significantly, stage effects of ever-greater sophistication. The latter depended heavily on coloured lantern-slides and lighting effects. de Loutherbourg was to spend the rest of his life in Britain, anglicising his name to Philip James. It is likely that, like many Frenchmen of his background, he would have found his country a most uncongenial place during and after the revolution.
|de Loutherbourg's "The Battle of Camperdown 1797"|
British victory over the Dutch fleet
“Mr. Loutherbourg has availed himself of the privilege allowed to painters, as well as epic and dramatic poets, of assembling in one point of view such incidents as were not very distant from each other in regard to time. These incidents have been associated as fully as the limits of the distinct picture would admit; and although many principal events, in which particular ships distinguished themselves, may not have been brought forward, yet the artist is satisfied that the officers of the navy will be indulgent for whatever it was not practicable to introduce; especially as it has been Mr. Loutherbourg’s plan to compose his pictures with an adherence to the principles of the art not usually consulted in marine painting.”
It is notable that in the case of the picture that first
roused my interest in de Loutherbourg, “The Capture of the Chevrette”, the drama may seem extreme, yet the work was based on
sketches made by officers who were actually present, and many of the faces are portraits
of them. Given that his career had taken
off under the Ancien Regime in France
it is interesting to note that he was to live on to be fascinated by the very
different world of the industrial revolution and to find it a challenging
|"The cutting-out of the Chevrette, 1801"|
de Loutherbourg’s 1801 “Coalbrookdale by Night”: iron foundries in action.
|de Loutherbourg's “Eidophusikon"|