New Haven is in sight of the Atlantic, so it’s entirely appropriate that ‘Spreading Canvas: British Marine Painting’ should have found a home here, at the Yale Center for British Art. The delightfully punny title, of course, alludes to the golden age of both British painting and British naval supremacy in the long 18th century. Curated by Eleanor Hughes, it takes a broad view of ships and the sea in visual culture of this period – not only painting, but prints, ceramics and even ships’ models – with numerous important loans from private collectors and from the National Maritime Museum.
This show is unabashedly detailed and cerebral in its approach to the subject matter. Charting the development of a national school of marine painters in the wake of the Van de Veldes, father and son who came to London from the Netherlands in 1673, it becomes apparent that works by artists such as Samuel Scott and Peter Monamy built upon the Dutch model to produce a distinctly national school of marine art, which comprised a complex visual system of patriotic identity. Self-defining as an island nation, British power in this period was dependent upon mastery of the sea, for trading, travelling and fighting. For this reason, ‘marine painting’ encompassed not only seascapes and views of ships in action, but also portraits and caricatures of sailors and naval officers. The mystique of the Royal Navy was bound up in the men who served in it, and the sailor was a glamorous and unimpeachably patriotic figure.
One standout segment of the show is a reconstruction of a group of marine art as it was originally hung at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire. The seat of Thomas Anson MP, elder brother of the great sailor and explorer Admiral Lord George Anson, it contained a carefully-planned display of paintings which represented the principal victories and actions in Admiral Anson’s career. In reconstructing the arrangement, through descriptive passages in the letters of Lady Elizabeth Anson, the admiral’s wife, we are able to feel a sense of the representational grandeur which must have attended this display in situ at Shugborough. Like the rest of this superb show, it is meticulously researched and beautifully displayed – a voyage of discover in miniature.
‘Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting’ is at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, until 4 December 2016.