Thomas Hearne spent three and a half years between 1771-75 as draughtsman to Sir Ralph Payne, the Governor-in-Chief and Captain-General of the Leeward Islands, a group of islands in the West Indies comprising Antigua, St. Christopher's (now called St. Kitts), Nevis and Montserrat. In the eighteenth century the Leewards were British sugar colonies sustained by the institution of black slavery and British naval power. Hearne was employed to mark Payne's stewardship of the Leewards and recorded the towns, harbours, scenery, agricultural life and people of the islands. The Payne family had been large landowners on St. Christopher's for several generations and were very active in the governance of Leeward Islands. With his return to the West Indies in February 1772, after a sea voyage of ten weeks, Sir Ralph Payne inherited a large estate from his parents on St. Christopher's, although he set up his main residence on Antigua, the largest island in the group and the established centre of colonial administration. Here, in March 1772, he rented a house at Clark Hill in the north of the island for £300 a year from Thomas Warner, a member of another established family of sugar planters. (Vere Langford Oliver, The hisory of the island of Antigua, 3 vols. 1894-99, Vol. 1, p. 121). The house overlooked Parham Harbour and is depicted in the present watercolour.
On his return to England in 1775, Payne commissioned from Hearne a series of twenty large watercolours to commemorate his governorhsip. In the finished series there were ten views of Antigua, four of St. Christopher's, and one each of Montserrat, Nevis, Tortola and Crab Island (both in the Virgin Islands), Puerto Rico, and Funchal in Madeira; in later life Hearne reported that the commission had taken eighteen months to complete. In 1810, after the death of Sir Ralph Payne (later Lord Lavington), his widow disposed of this series of watercolours by Hearne. This remarkable image of a hurricane on Antigua is the eighth watercolour from the series to come to light since the original sale.
The dramatic event that Hearne depicted was vividly described in a journal entry by Sir Ralph Payne on 5 September 1772: 'On the night of Sunday the 30th of August, the wind blew fresh..and continued increasing till five in the morning when it blew a hurricane from the NE...a melancholy darkness prevailed for more than an hour after sunrise. At eight o'clock the fury of the tempest in some measure abated, but it was only to collect a new redoubled violence, and to display itself with ten-fold terror, for the space of four hours. Some persons were buried in the ruins of their houses. Many houses were razed. The doors, windows, and partitions of the Court House were blown in, the interior completely wrecked and most valuable papers destroyed. The Barracks are in a deplorable condition. At English harbour, deemed storm proof, there was a squadron under Admiral Parry, whose flagship with others drove ashore, and the Hospital there was levelled to the ground crushing in its fall the unfortunate patients and attendants. My new study, with most of my papers, was blown away.' (op, cit, p. 121)
Hearne shows the damage being done to the Governor-General's house at the height of the storm. Roof-tiles are blown off, chairs and other pieces of furniture are scattered by the force of the wind. Men in military uniform, servants and slaves are shown trying to protect themselves from the buffeting wind and flying debris as they attempt to salvage what they can. Many of Hearne's other waterolours from this series celebrated the recovery of the Leewards from this notorious natural disaster, depicting the newly rebuilt Barracks and Hospital, and also the renovated Court House, at St. John's, the main town of Antigua. The impression conveyed by the series as a whole was that Antigua was a well-defended, well-planned and stable British colony, which in turn, of course, was intended to reflect well on the governorship of his patron, Sir Ralph Payne. This image is a very important one in the series as it was included to represent the appalling and overwhelming natural forces with which British rule had to contend in the West Indian colonies, but which could be overcome with good government, as other images from the set sought to demonstrate.
We are grateful to David Morris for preparing the above catalogue entry.