PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
His sale, London, Foster's, 4 July 1835 (as 'W. Vandevelde'), for £55.13 to
Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803–1890), Margam Castle and Penrice;
By descent until sold Margam Castle Sale, Christie's, 29 October 1941, lot 391 (as by Monamy) to Blairman's;
Frederick Fermor-Hesketh, 2nd Baron Hesketh (1916-1955), Easton Neston, Northamptonshire;
By descent until sold ('Property of the Trustees of the 2nd Baron Hesketh's Will Trust'), London, Sotheby's, 9 December 2009, lot 48.
This exquisitely detailed and beautifully preserved painting is a characteristic example of Samuel Scott's most endearing work. Having begun his career primarily as a painter of offshore marine pieces and naval engagements, by the late 1730s and 1740s Scott was gradually moving up the Thames Estuary towards London, via Wapping and Greenwich, and the naval docks at Deptford. It was undoubtedly his work for the East India Company that first attracted him to this particular stretch of the river. The size of the company's vessels, combined with the prevalence of mud banks further up river, forced them to unload their cargoes in the area where they owned warehouses at Shadwell, wharves at Deptford and a ship building yard at Blackwell.
The composition for the present painting is largely based on a pen and sepia ink drawing in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich,2 which also served as the preparatory sketch for An English Man of War and other shipping in an Oriental Port, as well as a number of other works by the artist. Painted on a grand scale, just left of centre a British 6th rate naval vessel lies at anchor in the Thames, a long naval pennant trailing in the breeze and the red ensign at its stern. The ship is raising anchor, its sails hoisted, as men scramble about the upper rigging and work the sheets from the deck in a frantic effort to make ready and catch the outgoing tide. The composition also recalls an earlier sketch entitled Shipping on the Thames at Wapping (Private Collection), which repeats the larger vessels, as well as the smaller boat with the pipe smoker in the foreground. The same ship recurs in a number of Scott's works, with subtle alterations transforming it from naval vessel to merchantman and back again accordingly; as seen in A Danish Timber Bark getting under way (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). Beyond her and to the right lies a Dutch flute, the merchantman Expedition, with a British buss behind. The 6th rater fires a salute, whilst on deck a lady can be seen being welcomed on board. These vessels were small Royal Navy warships, mounting between 20 and 24 nine-pounder guns on a single deck, sometimes with guns on the upper works as well. These ship-rigged vessels, sometimes called 'post-ships', typically held a crew of between 150 and 240 men. In the foreground the composition is dominated by a number of smaller craft loading the ships, ferrying crew out to their vessels, delivering timber and all the necessary tasks required to re-fit and prepare a ship for sea (a number of figure studies relating to these groups are held in the archives of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich). This bustling waterborne activity, as well as the presence of a number of hulks, suggests proximity to a dockyard, and it is very likely that the location is the Royal Docks at Deptford.
During the eighteenth century the Thames was the main artery of London, and shipping the principal means of transport. Five hundred feet wider than it is today, its crowded banks, teaming with activity and crammed with every imaginable vessel, would have been a familiar sight and an everyday reality for the city's inhabitants. The capital was then the commercial centre of a burgeoning empire as well as the nexus of the pre-eminent naval power of the eighteenth century. The dockside would have been a thriving hub of activity with spices, textiles, timber and metals, among other things, arriving from all over the world. This painting beautifully captures all the bustle and commotion of river life in every detail. Unlike Canaletto, who suffused his views of London with the Adriatic light of his native Venice, Scott's paintings of the Thames capture the sometimes pearly, sometime murky atmosphere of his native city. Rarely is this seen to such great effect as in the present painting, with its depiction of the great sailing vessels of the age, those grand square-riggers so eulogised in the popular imagination, both then and now, presenting a highly charged and romantic vision of maritime life. Horace Walpole, who owned eight of Scott's oil paintings and many more drawings, described him as ‘Samuel Scott, painter of sea-pieces... born for an age of naval glory, and equal to it’, while he was praised by John Bernard as ‘the best painter of shipping and sea views in England of his time.’
The painting was offered in July 1835 by Charles O'Neil at a Foster's sale as A Sea Piece, View on the Thames near Rotherhithe, with numerous Vessels, Boats, &c; considered to be painted by W. Vandervelde – a grand gallery picture. It was bought by Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot who built Margam Castle, near Port Talbot in Wales in the 1830s, where the picture later hung in the dining room, over the door going through to the drawing room. Talbot bought a large number of paintings at the O'Neil sale, including works by or attributed to Van Dyck, Rubens, Konninck, Jacob van Ruisadel, William Van de Velde the Younger, Karel Dujardin, Terborch, Cuyp, Nicholas Berchem and Salvator Rosa. He also advised his friend and Welsh neighbour, Lewis Weston Dillwyn, to buy pictures in the same sale, a fact that is recorded in Dillwyn's well known diary.
Talbot was born in 1803 and started collecting in the 1820s. He travelled widely and spent a lot of time in Italy, particularly in Naples where he bought pictures by Paolo de Matteis and some Canalettos in Venice. Inevitably, the most active period of his collecting was the 1830s whilst Margam Castle was under construction. A confident judge of pictures he does not seem to have ever used advisers or agents, unlike Lord Penrhyn in North Wales, for example, who was collecting at the same time, and continued to collect pictures well into his eighties. At the sale of William Wells of Redleaf's pictures in 1848 Talbot bought a Pynacker and the Pietro da Cortona of Saint Cecilia now in the National Gallery.
Talbot was a passionate sailor and member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and seascapes held a natural appeal. As well as the present painting and the Van de Veldes previously mentioned, he also owned marine paintings by Ludolf Backhuisen and Aelbert Cuyp amongst others. Perhaps the most unusual picture in his collection was a large Niccolo dell'Abate now in the National Gallery. Other notable pictures included an Orazio Gentilleschi (Birmingham City Art Gallery) and the Conversion of St Paul by Karel Dujardin (National Gallery).
The present picture was later sold at the Margam Castle sale in 1941 and passed into the collection of Lord Hesketh, where it hung at Easton Neston. We are grateful to Thomas Methuen-Campbell for providing information on the Talbot collection at Margam Castle.
1. Obituary, The Daily Observer, Wednesday 4th November 1772.
2. Kingzett 1982, no. D5, p. 79.
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