THE PROPERTY OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE LADY SANDYS WILL TRUST
By inheritance to his niece, Mary Sandys, Marchioness of Downshire and 1st Baroness Sandys (d. 1836), wife of Arthur Hill, 2nd Marquess of Downshire (1753–1801);
By descent to her second son, Lt.-Gen. Arthur Hill, 2nd Baron Sandys (1792–1860);
By inheritance to his younger brother, Arthur Marcus Sandys (formerly Hill), 3rd Baron Sandys (1798–1863);
Thence by descent at Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, to Richard Hill, 7th Baron Sandys (1931–2013).
Anon., Ombersley Court Inventory, annotated Ombersley Ms., 1963, p. 55, listed as hanging in The Gallery;
Ombersley Court Catalogue of Pictures, Ombersley Ms., undated, p. 46, listed in the Upper Gallery: 'War Ships in Calm Weather, West Wall, 24 x 29 in.';
M.S. Robinson, The Paintings of the Willem van de Veldes, 2 vols, London 1990, vol. II, p. 606, cat. no. 586.
The picture is one of an important group of paintings by Van de Velde at Ombersley Court, which came to the Sandys family through the marriage of Admiral Russell’s great-niece, Laetitia Tipping, to Samuel Sandys, 1st Baron Sandys (1695–1770) in 1725. Mostly painted circa 1698, after Russell had retired from the sea following his return from the Mediterranean in 1695 and a brief service as commander-in-chief in the Downs from February to March 1696, they were commissioned to decorate his new house, Chippenham Hall near Cambridge. When Russell died in 1727 without issue, Laetitia, now Lady Sandys, was his only heir. The majority of the pictures she inherited commemorated major events in her great-uncle’s celebrated naval career, including monumental depictions of the burning of the Soleil Royal near Cherbourg, following the Battle of Barfleur; and the voyage of the Queen of Spain to Corunna in 1690, escorted by Admiral Russell in his flagship the Duke. This picture, however, cannot be securely identified in early inventories of the Sandys’ collection at Ombersley and, at present, the subject remains frustratingly elusive and does not appear to have a particular connection with Russell and his naval career.
In the foreground an English two-deck man-of-war of the Red Squadron, apparently carrying 54 guns, is seen coming into anchor close to shore. Around her are a number of other ships from her squadron, two of which are firing a salute. On her poop deck is strung an awning covering a large number of people which is unusual for a Man of War and suggests she is carrying important passengers, possibly including ladies. If this is the case, however, none of the passengers is important enough to warrant the flying of a royal standard. Another suggestion, if the picture was commissioned by Russell to commemorate a particular event, is that the ship could be carrying casualties from one of his many victorious battles, such as the Battle of Barfleur in 1692 – the decisive naval engagement of the Nine Years' War in which Russell, as commander in chief of the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet, destroyed the Franco-Irish forces under the command of Admiral de Tourville that were attempting to launch an invasion of England. There is no other evidence for this in the image itself, however, and the location of the anchorage is not obviously Portsmouth, which was the place to which casualties from that action returned. Neither is it a fleet return and there is no other example of such a subject being treated in art at this date, particularly by the great Van de Veldes.
Robinson, who only knew this painting from a photograph, dated it to circa 1690, slightly earlier than the rest of the Russell group. It might have been a ship that he commanded as a captain, which he was in 1672; not being promoted to flag rank until 1689 when he was appointed direct to Admiral of the Blue. It could be, however, that it was not a commissioned picture all, but simply a work that the Admiral admired and acquired from the artist to fill out the collection. Equally, given the lack of secure identification in the early Ombersley inventories, it could have entered the Sandys collection after the Russell bequest. The prominent inclusion of the awning on the poop of the foreground ship and the heavy concentration of people beneath it is odd, however, and points to a specific event being commemorated.
We are grateful to Dr Pieter van de Merwe for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot. We are also grateful to the late Prof. Dr Jan Kelch, who endorsed the attribution to Van de Velde the Younger and his studio on the basis of a photograph in 2016, conceding that the heavily discoloured old varnish layer that currently covers the painting made it 'difficult to decide whether it was done 'entirely', 'substantially' or 'partly' by the Younger'.
Further to the printed catalogue:
It has been suggested that this painting depicts HMS Defiance, a 64-gun third rate man-of-war built at Chatham in 1675, identifiable by the unusual disposition of her gun ports. The Defiance was commanded by Captain Edward Russell, later Admiral of the Fleet, in the Straits of Gibraltar between February and March 1678 (see National Archives, Kew, fleet dispositions list in ADM 8/1, folios 94-96). This would also explain the awning on her quarterdeck, which was a common feature of ships serving in Mediterranean waters. We are grateful to Frank L. Fox, FSNR, for this information.
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