Blackwall, on the north bank of the Thames, to the east of Greenwich, had been a site for ship building since the Middle Ages. The proximity of the village to London, and the naturally deep water of the river at that point, made it an ideal choice for relocation when the East India Company outgrew its docks at Deptford in the early seventeenth century. During the ensuing hundred years the new yard [at Blackwall] continued to expand, building ships for the Royal Navy as well as for the East India Company, and by the date of this picture, it had become the largest private dockyard in the world. Under the management of John Perry in the second half of the eighteenth century, the yard flourished, and helped by the revival of trade after the American War of Independence, the year 1784 saw a large number of new commissions and was described as one of the most important in the company’s history; ‘the tide of business was at the full’ and Perry was ‘said to have been almost alarmed at his own success’ (Chronicles of Blackwall Yard, London, 1881, p. 32).
It is therefore entirely reasonable to suppose that Perry commissioned Francis Holman to paint this view, and a similar one now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, in order to commemorate the company’s successes. In Robert Wigram’s Chronicles of Blackwall Yard, he mentions two pictures of the dockyard painted in 1784, one of which was in the possession of the Perry family and the other with Messrs Money, Wigram & Co., who, from the early nineteenth century, owned half of the Blackwall yard. Although no artist is mentioned in the Chronicles, it is safe to conclude that these two paintings are by Holman. The seven ships shown in the paintings are four 74-gun third rates, H.M. Ships Venerable, Victorious, Hannibal and Theseus, and two 44-gun ships, Adventure and Gorgon, together with the West Indiaman Three Sisters. The painting at the National Maritime Museum depicts the launch of the Adventure on 19 July 1784, and in it, the ship to the left hand side of the canvas has been identified as H.M.S. Venerable, which had been launched earlier that year, in April 1784. As the next of the 74s to be launched, Victorious, went into the water in April 1785, our picture must depict the Venerable.
The third rate H.M.S. Venerable is best known to history as Admiral Duncan’s flagship at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October 1797, during the French Revolutionary Wars, where Duncan roundly defeated the Dutch fleet in a victory, which effectively marked the end of Dutch sea power and the eclipse of the Dutch navy as a significant force in European history.
The son of a master mariner, Francis Holman was born in Ramsgate in 1729. His younger brother, Captain John Holman (1733-1816), ran the family shipping business, so Holman was immersed in the maritime world from a young age. His early works were mostly portraits of ships commissioned by their captains, but later on he turned his attention to painting ships of the Royal Navy. Known to history for being the teacher of the maritime artist, Thomas Luny (1759-1837), his unerring attention to detail and knowledge of the subject have left us with a valuable record of eighteenth century maritime life.
We are grateful to Michael Natxton for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.