When the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich opened to the public in 1937, its core holdings came from three great private collections of the time, namely those of Sir James Caird, Sir Bruce Ingram and Captain Eric Palmer. The works amassed by the museum’s principal benefactors were put together with the historic Greenwich Hospital Collection as well as pictures owned by the Admiralty. The result was an unparalleled collection of marine paintings, prints and drawings – a collection like no other, that enabled the scholar or enthusiast to trace the “sea piece”, as such works were once called, from its origins in Flanders and Holland, to its transformation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and France, and beyond.
The National Maritime Museum’s premises, which include the Queen’s House at Greenwich, are elegant but not enormous, which means that much of the collection has had to be kept in store. Over time, it has become a rather neglected national resource, its problems perhaps compounded by a growing indifference among the modern, landlubberly British to the days when their ancestors were proud “to rule the waves”. “Turmoil and Tranquillity”, the main summer exhibition at the Queen’s House, aims to put a stop to all that – to call attention to the richness of the musuem’s holdings and put it back on the sea-chart of public awareness.
The focus of the show is the museum’s collection of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish marine art, which is the largest and, unquestionably, the most important of its kind anywhere in the world. Its four hundred pictures and many more prints and drawings have been distilled to around a hundred actual exhibits, telling the story of marine painting’s development from its beginnings in Northern Europe through to its development, in the hands of the leading artists of the so-called Dutch “Golden Age”, into one of the most fluid and sophisticated genres of art.
The show opens with a juxtaposition of two paintings, an anonymous bird’s-eye-view of Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast painted in the mid-1540s, possibly by a follower of Joachim Patinir; and a stormy depiction of Jonah and the Whale, painted by Adam Willaerts in the early years of the seventeenth century. The first painting is a light-hearted topographical fantasy in which a number of galleons, improbably blown in all directions by a singularly inconsistent wind, scud across a pea-green sea studded with islands on which fairytale castles perch. The second is a busy, oval composition in which a boat crowded with panicking figures is simultaneously assailed by storm-churned waves and a gurning sea monster. Close inspection reveals the figure of Jonah, in mid-air, having just been pushed overboard by his superstitious shipmates.
Much of the exhibition could be said to chart the voyage of the secular sea-piece, untethered from its origins in fairytale fantasy and biblical homile alike. Holland in the seventeenth century was a new nation, free of the Spanish yoke and proud of its independence. Dutch economic prosperity and military power were based on Dutch prowess at sea, so masters of marine subject matter came to see themselves as the history painters of their nation. In 1610, looking back at a golden moment in the history of Dutch economic expansion, Andries van Eertvelt painted The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies on 19 July 1599. A squadron of returning ships, sails swelled by the fair wind of prosperity, is greeted by a celebratory flotilla. Wispy clouds fill the sky and the air is thick with a forest of masts. By contrast, the anonymous painter responsible for The Wreck of the Amsterdam chose a moment of disaster as his theme. A golden galleon, pitched sideways by dark waves the height of buildings, is about to be shivered to matchsticks by a mass of grey rocks as sharp as knives.
The Dutch sensibility was famously morbid, even at the height of Dutch economic and political success – witness the still life tradition of Holland, with its grinning skulls, faded flowers, guttering candles and countless other memento mori. The uncertainties of life on the sea, on which Holland’s fortunes were so dependent, may have had much to do with the innate, phlegmatic pessimism of the nation. The exhibition at Greenwich seethes with images of ships in trouble under dark and lowering skies, of ships steering perilously close to jagged outcrops of threatening rock – and of shipwrecked men, clinging to masts as their vessels are sucked down by the waves, or sheltering in the lee of picturesquely imagined coves and crags.
Overall, however, the exhibition might be said to demonstrate the triumph of observation over convention. The early Dutch painters of the sea cleaved to the stereotypes of late Mannerist art, in which water is always dark green and painted in scalloped outlines that call to mind the forms of Baroque statuary rather than the waves of the sea. By the mid-seventeenth century, a generation of painters including Jan Porcellis, Simon de Vlieger and Jan van de Cappelle – painters who spent much of their lives at sea, studying its moods and rhythms – had changed all that. They introduced naturalistic colours and a multitude of sophisticated techniques designed to capture the evanescence of the actual, visual experience of the sea - mist, spray, spume, fast-moving clouds and fast-running waves.
The exhibition reaches its climax with a number of masterpieces by Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son and namesake, van de Velde the Younger. They excelled as battle painters and a number of their later paintings seem to anticipate, by a hundred years and more, the Romantic thrill of excitement that would greet the feats of Nelson and his contemporaries. These are brilliant, panoramic depictions of naval warfare, at once sweepingly atmospheric and circumstantially detailed. On the pewter disc of the North Sea, under a pewter sky, ships come under bombardment. Sails are holed, mast shattered, rigging sundered, and flames and smoke mingle with sea-spray and dark billows of cloud. Men cling to the wreckage of their ships or fight for space in lifeboats while the Van de Veldes – who liked to include themselves in their own pictures – look on from the foredeck of their observation boat, pen and paper in hand. The Van de Veldes became marine painters by appointment to the King Charles II and between them founded a remarkable English marine tradition, which would include among its several, sadly forgotten luminaries, the remarkable Charles Brooking.
All that is another story. But it too is one that the National Maritime Museum could – one day – use its extraordinary collection to tell.