PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF JOHN PIERPONT MORGAN, 2ND
Geoffrey Callender, The Portrait of Peter Pett and The Sovereign of the Seas, greenwich 1930, pp. 17-18, reproduced on the title page and as plate IV;
Robinson 1958, p. 169, under no. 488;
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich website, Collections Online, under Sir Peter Lely's Portrait of Peter Pett and the Sovereign of the Seas (BHC2949), as "currently untraced".
This wonderfully elaborate ship's portrait is of the Sovereign of the Seas, first constructed at the command of King Charles I by Peter Pett in 1637. She was rebuilt in 1659, renamed The Royal Sovereign by Charles II in 1660 and rebuilt again in 1685. In 1637 she was the largest and most elaborate English ship of her time. She had 102 guns, made from bronze rather than cast iron, on three full gun decks. The gilding and carving alone cost more than £6,600, the equivalent of the price of an entire hull of a two-decker, and the total bill came to £65,586-16-9½. The size of the vessel was astonishing; Pepys, who took a tour of the vessel records in his diary entry of 17 January 1660/61 that "My Lady Sandwich, my Lady Jemimah, Mrs. Browne, Mrs. Grace, and Mary and the page, my lady’s servants and myself, all went into the lanthorn together".
The decoration of the ship is so elaborate that one could at first take it for a work of fantasy. The figurehead shows King Edgar the Peaceful (c. 943-975), on horseback, trampling his rivals. Along the prow of the ship are carvings of the various attributes of the United Kingdom, including a King Henry VII's greyhound, a fleur-de-lys relating to the Norman heritage, the griffon of Wales, the thistle and unicorn of Scotland, the Tudor rose, the English lion, and below that the harp of Ireland. On the foredeck are caryatids -- representing Counsel, Carefulness, Industry, Strength, Valor and Victory -- who speak to each other across the gun ports, surmounted by more fleurs-de-lys. Along the upper row of guns are Roman trophies as well as the cross of St. Andrew and towards the stern are signs of the Zodiac, and also a Phoenix flanked by the royal cypher. Charles I had insisted that the coloring be limited to gilt and black, giving her a remarkably dramatic appearance and the Dutch, who fought against her in the Anglo-Dutch wars referred to her as the 'golden devil'.
Hidden among all this decoration are a few living beings. On the foredeck a sailor is bending over with his hand on the rail, looking out toward the viewer. Almost disappearing amidst the decoration of the elaborate quarter-gallery are two much more elegant figures standing at the rail.
At the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich there are several other drawings of The Sovereign of the Seas, the earliest of which Robinson dates to circa 1661 (Robinson 1958, no. 67). Another drawing in Rotterdam (MB 1866/T 398, Robinson & Weber, vol. I, p.120 and vol. III pl. 259), which Robinson and Weber tentatively date to 1663, is the closest to the present composition, though substantially smaller (343 by 508 mm.). It shows the ship from roughly the same angle though from a slightly lower viewpoint, and swarming with people. The present drawing is, however, the most elaborate and finished of the known drawings of The Sovereign of the Seas.
It also clearly depicts the ship before her renovation, a state in which Van de Velde, who traveled to England in 1660 at the earliest (see Robinson 1990, p. xii), could not have known her. Certainly there were depictions of the vessel that Van de Velde could have seen, most notably John Payne's engraving of 1638, which shows the ship from almost the same point of view. Payne, however, has set her on the seas, fully rigged, though somewhat fantastically, because the actual rigging had not been completed by that date.
More intriguing is why Van de Velde was making this elaborate portrait of the ship in her original form. The answer may lie in the symbolism embodied in the ship, which relates almost entirely to the power of the British sovereign. For example, King Edgar, on the figurehead, is considered the first king of all of what was then England, ruling Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, and throughout the ship are other reminders of the King's sovereignty. When Charles I commissioned this huge and elaborate vessel she was intended as a physical demonstration of his power and reach. With the restoration of the monarchy in his own person, Charles II undoubtedly wished to reassert this image of dominance. Although the vessel had been rebuilt, it would be in keeping with the idea of the restoration of the king's power for Charles II to have commissioned a portrait of the ship as she originally looked: the largest, most elaborate and best armed ship of her time.
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