This impressive work is set in the Straits of Dover, with Dover Castle in the background and the mainland beyond.
A large man-of-war dominates the foreground, seen from a starboard-quarter view. The red ensign flies from the man-of-war’s stern and the union flag flies from the stern of the smaller yacht following on the man-of-war’s starboard side. These and the other principal ships have their anchors aweigh, and move towards anchorage. The overall impression is of a powerful British fleet in home waters, with Dover’s distinctive white cliffs beckoning the sailors home.
Because of the natural gap in the cliffs, and its proximity to the continent, Dover controls the English Channel, and is known as the 'Lock and Key of England.' Dover's forbidding wall of cliffs was the primary objective of the naval invasion plans of Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Hitler. Dover's history as a military and garrison town is evident in its architecture, with its forts from both the Roman and Napoleonic eras, as well as the massive castle. From 1606, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports had responsibility for the harbor’s safety, and it was used by fast sailing craft carrying mails to Calais and Ostend -- the first Channel 'packets' -- whose services were provided by the Admiralty for much of the period. By the mid eighteenth Century, three dock basins were constructed to accommodate growing traffic. Tudor and Stuart kings and queens understood Dover’s defensive value; both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I financed expensive repairs and enlargements to the harbor, when it was threatened with blockage by silt and shingle.
Another Sailmaker, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, depicts the man-of-war Brittania in the straits of Dover, and its similarity to the present work in subject and composition makes it seem likely that the present work can also be dated circa 1707-1714.
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