This painting shows a two-decker – probably of about 64 guns – being launched or, more accurately, ‘floated-out’ from the Deptford double dry-dock (which could accommodate two ships end to end). It is flying launching flags, including the fouled anchor of the Admiralty and the Royal Standard. To the right two other ships are under construction on building slips, and a yacht can be seen beyond, moored beside timber sheds in the small Deptford wet dock. The large building at center is the Grand Storehouse (begun in 1712), while at far left is the Master Shipwright's house of 1704, which still stands today. Vessels lying off, in the river, include official barges, a cutter-rigged Admiralty yacht at center, and another two-decker (also of about 64 guns) at far right, riding high since it is not carrying its armament. The identity of the vessel being launched is uncertain and it may be the Kent, the Berwick or the Hampton Court.
John Cleveley excelled in painting such scenes. London-born in about 1712, he trained as a joiner and boat-builder before becoming a naval shipwright at Deptford and, from the 1740s, a self-taught painter and exhibitor of shipping and shipbuilding subjects, especially of Deptford. While his success with a nautical clientele was based on his detailed knowledge of the subject, his representation of the teeming life of the river may have been influenced by Canaletto, who worked in England from 1746 to 1755 (apart from short returns to his native Venice). Like Canaletto, Cleveley transcended the topographical demands of his subjects and produced atmospheric compositions of considerable grandeur. He may have spent some time at sea as a ship’s carpenter and, at the end of his life, he was briefly seconded to work on the Victory (Nelson’s later flagship) at Chatham, but his family home remained King’s Yard Row, Deptford, where he died in 1777. His twin sons John and Robert, both also marine artists, were born there in 1747 and his widow Sarah continued there to her own death in 1798. A younger son, James, was carpenter in Captain Cook’s Resolution (1776–80)
A near-identical composition, painted a year before the present example, was sold at Sotheby's, London, on 12 July 1995, lot 7. There are four other currently known variants, with different ships, staffage and varying dates. The present one appears to be among the best preserved, along with that of 1757 in the National Maritime Museum collection at Royal Museums Greenwich (BHC3602) which fictitiously includes the Royal George (launched 1756) at the floating-out of the Cambridge in 1755. The others are in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, and in London (Science Museum and Government Art Collection).
We are grateful to Pieter van der Merwe of the Royal Museums Greenwich, Greenwich for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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