Sale: Christie's, London, May 1886
The Parker Gallery, London
Christopher Wood, London
Cleveley’s highly detailed marine paintings were directly informed by his life experience. The son of a ship joiner, Cleveley was apprenticed as a shipwright (a carpenter) at the age of 14. He eventually received permanent employment in the Deptford Dockyard; while he maintained his craftsman’s status and profession throughout his life, he soon thereafter produced his first paintings, with only occasional instruction from local ship-painters. As with his Launch of the Man-of-War, Edgar, Deptford, the majority of the artist’s works of the 1750s depicted the construction and launching of great British naval ships on the Thames. Deptford was strategically located near the Royal Palace of Greenwich and, since the reign of Henry VIII, drew innumerable joiners, carpenters, riggers, sail makers and laborers to the area along with a supporting community of innkeepers, doctors, tavern owners and mercantilists. The successful completion of each vessel’s construction depended on the efforts of over 140 men, who often took several years to build the massive hulls, which were propelled by a series of giant sails hung on tall masts, and armed with a number of powerful cannon. As part of this community, Cleveley appreciated the cooperative efforts of shipbuilding and evocatively describes the process in the present work, featuring three ships in various stages of completion. The storehouses that kept the raw supplies of oak, fir, elm and beech woods, sail cloth, and metals are visible on the horizon line; nearby, a crew begins the “laying of the keel” (building the wooden skeleton of the hull), beside a nearly completed ship raised high at dock for last fittings; finally there is the grand Edgar, its four ceremonial banners dominating the composition. The large number of boats on the river accompanying the launch augments the celebratory nature of the event. Crowds of onlookers, who avidly followed the news of each new ship’s commission, traveled for miles to honor the day and many would launch smaller crafts into the river to escort the man-of-war to sea, while others ran along the river banks in revelry. Festive and complex, with details only an insider could capture, the Launch of the Man-of-War Edgar testifies to Cleveley’s brilliance despite his lack of formal training. This view also recognizes the influence of contemporary master Canaletto's picturesque and precise images of contemporary London’s urban activity.
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