Naval engagement

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 16

Naval engagement

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 16

Naval engagement

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 16

John Cleveley's magnificent painting records the start of the long and happy marriage of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Admiral Lord West decodes its signals

Why is this masterpiece not in the Royal Collection?" was my first thought when I saw John Cleveley's The Royal Yacht Royal Caroline Off Harwich, September 1761 for the first time. It is a very fine painting, but it also has remarkable significance as a piece of documentary history.

King George III succeeded to the throne of his grandfather George II in October 1760. He was unmarried and chose as his consort the 17-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her father, Duke Charles, ruled over this insignificant North German duchy, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and so George reasoned that she would have been unlikely to have experienced power politics. Indeed, at that stage, Charlotte could not even speak English. In August 1761, a fleet of six warships and five royal yachts was dispatched to collect her from Cuxhaven in Germany. By order of King George, the principal yacht was sumptuously fitted out and the crew clothed in "red uniform with gold-laced hats, buttons and loops, light gray worsted stockings, baubles and pumps," all at His Majesty's expense.

The officer put in charge of collecting the future queen was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Anson, the first lord of the Admiralty, who was famous for his circumnavigation of the globe, during which he had captured the Manilla galleon carrying well over a million pieces of eight, making him rich for life and therefore able to rebuild the family estate at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. His other most notable achievement was the defeat of the French at the Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747.

Why such an impressive escort of warships? Well, 1761 was five years into the Seven Years War with the French, and although their navy had been seriously weakened by defeat, there was still a danger from privateers. The other ships of the squadron, not necessarily included in this painting, were the impressive 60-gun Nottingham, the 50-Winchester, 32-Minerva, 28-Tartar, 14-Hazard, 14-Lynx and the royal yachts – Mary, Katherine, Augusta and Fubbs. The painting also poses a question: why were there were so many royal yachts? Their purpose was as auxiliary vessels to carry baggage and members of the royal entourage. One served as a galley for the rest. A red dragon-like galley chimney is visible emerging from the foredeck of the Caroline, but one imagines it was for the sole use of that ship.

The regal fleet finally set sail on 6 August 1761, reaching Cuxhaven to collect the princess on 28 August. However, the return journey was not without incident: westerly gales blew the squadron to the Norwegian coast, and three successive gales prevented it reaching Harwich until 6 September.

One can only imagine the ordeal of the young woman who met her future husband, the King, for the first time on 7 September, at the garden gate to St James's Palace. He is alleged to have found her ugly and one hopes he didn't make that obvious. They were married the following day in the Chapel Royal of St James's Palace, an event that cannot have been an elaborate affair, because of the unpredictability of her safe landfall. Greeting parties had been positioned at a number of east coast ports, since where ships landed was always very much at the mercy of the winds.

It proved to be a happy marriage. Princess Charlotte was a patron of the arts and a keen amateur botanist. She was to become the famous 'Mrs King', as shown in Alan Bennett's play The Madness of King George, and was devoted to family life, bearing 15 children, of whom 13 survived. Two would become kings of England, while the daughter of her fourth son became Queen Victoria.

But even without hindsight, the safe arrival of the princess at Harwich was an occasion of immense political significance for the nation, and the most appropriate way to document and celebrate the event was in paint on canvas. A painting of the fleet at sea on its return voyage to England is in the Royal Collection, and a copy by Richard Wright is in the National Maritime Museum. That museum also has a painting by Dominic Serres the Elder of the scene on shore, but it fails to capture the excitement and significance of the occasion in the way that this work by John Cleveley does. (Cleveley made another painting of the event, but from the sea, which is in the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; it does not have the same focus or passion as the work in Bonhams' sale.)

An interesting point is that Cleveley and other artists called the principal royal yacht Caroline, whereas we know that, in honor of the new princess, the ship was renamed Charlotte in Deptford on Thursday 23 July 1761, before setting off for Germany, a fact reported in the St James Chronicle two days later. It is accepted that she was called by both names initially, but over time the royal yacht was permanently known as the Charlotte. There had already been a yacht named Princess Charlotte, which had been launched in 1711, and she had to be renamed Augusta.

The painting vividly portrays the stiff breeze in the aftermath of the westerly gales. The bay of Harwich shown in the picture is on a north-facing coast, therefore the wind seems to be coming from the east. A short, steep sea is deftly painted, adding to the liveliness of the composition. This seems to be artistic license, as the fetch of the wind would surely have produced a longer sea.

The celadon hue of the water is complementary to the soft red of the ensign of the royal yacht Caroline, with the princess aboard, which takes center stage. She also flies George III's royal standard, and the Lord High Admiral's flag of George Anson.

Two white cotton-wool puffs of smoke indicate that some ships of the squadron are firing a 21-gun salute in response to a salute from shore. These lead the eye round, clockwise, via the buildings ashore and the estuary of the Stour on the right horizon, to a small Dutch sailing barge in the right foreground. Cleveley must have been familiar with the local sea traffic to know that Dutchmen plied their trade to England's east coast.

There is delightful detail on closer inspection: Harwich's white wooden lighthouse, the church and spire, shipbuilders, the sea wall, meadows and trees. White-uniformed watermen in skiffs are afloat to greet the squadron.

I confess to being unfamiliar with those red and white rectangles of canvas at the 'tops' of the royal yacht; but what a satisfying pattern they make with a formation of sailors in blue jackets saluting in the rigging. Cleveley isn't just documenting a major maritime event, he is also constructing a most pleasing formal composition.

This is an evocative work and the most successful of the paintings that marked a crucial event in British history. I feel privileged to have stood in front of it and studied it closely. I also viewed the rest of the work in this sale of the collection of John Robertson and came to the conclusion that Robertson had an exceptionally good eye – and that this is the crown jewel in the collection.

Admiral the Right Honorable Baron West of Spithead GCB DSC PC ADC was First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 2002 to 2006.

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