The standardisation of battleship design so familiar to modern eyes only realy began after Sir William White became Director of Naval Construction in 1886. Before then - and particularly during the time of White's immediate predecessor Sir Nathaniel Barnaby - the various fleets of the Royal Navy were characterised not only by a remarkable lack of uniformity, but also by some individual ships of quite extraordinary design. In fact, this painting gives a perfect illustration of this diversity in its portrayal of (from left to right) Her Majesty's Ships Sans Pareil, Nile and Howe, (painted sometime between October 1893 and April 1895), all three of which were products of the Barnaby era even though they did not enter service until after he had retired.
H.M.S. Sans Pareil, 10,470 tons, was laid down at the Thames Iron Works in April 1885, launched in May 1887 though not completed until July 1891. Steam trials had been run in 1889 but there were serious delays in the delivery of her two massive 16.25-in. 110 ton guns for her forward turret which, with her twin funnels athwartships, gave her such a distinctive profile. In the Mediterranean from 1892-95, she spent the rest of her career in Reserve - except for a spell as a Guardship - and was sold for scrapping in 1907 as part of Admiral Fisher's modernisation programme.
H.M.S. Nile, 12,590 tons, was built at Pembroke and completed in July 1891. Armed with four 13.5-in. 67 ton guns mounted in pairs in a turret fore and aft, she too had very high twin funnels athwartships which gave her an equally unconventional appearance. In the Mediterranean from 1891-97, she was then portguard ship at Devonport until 1903 when she was placed in Reserve until scrapped in 1912.
H.M.S.Howe, 10,600 tons, was also built at Pembroke and completed in May 1889. Armed with four 13.5-in. 67 ton guns mounted in two barbettes fore and aft, she and Nile typified the power struggle within the Admiralty between the advocates of enclosed turrets and those favouring the more exposed barbettes. Howe joined the Channel Fleet in 1890, transferred to the Mediterranean in October 1893 and remained there until the end of 1896. After this she served as portguard ship at Queenstown until 1901, was last at sea for the 1904 manoeuvres, and was then placed in Reserve until sold for breaking in 1910.