Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Departure of S.W. Prentice and Five Others from their Shipwrecked Companions, 1784


The Departure of S.W. Prentice and Five Others from their Shipwrecked Companions, 1781, Robert Pollard, 1784, Toronto Public Library.

Ensign Prentice (sometimes spelled "Prenties") was an officer in the 84th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Highland Emigrants. In November of 1780, Prentice was ordered to carry dispatches from General Haldimand from Quebec to Sir Henry Clinton in New York.  Departing aboard the brigantine St. Lawrence, the voyage was expected to be a short one. Unfortunately, St. Lawrence was not up to the job. Taking on water as she sailed in "intensely cold" weather, the crew early on despaired to the point of mutiny. A snowy gale eventually overwhelmed captain and crew. Early on the morning of December 5, 1781, the St. Lawrence was pooped and abandoned. Thus began a story of survival on the frozen Canadian shore.

Prentice's recollections were published the next year as "Narrative of a Shipwreck on the Island of Cape Breton, in a Voyage from Quebec, 1780." While you can read the Narrative in its full at Archive.org, be warned that a critic in the London Review for August, 1782 deemed it "often vulgar, sometimes silly, and always insipid."

Regardless of Prentice's failures with prose, Robert Pollard found enough inspiration in the story to compose this print of Ensign Prentice's departure to seek help for the starving and freezing tars. On January 4th, Prentice and a few others piled into the surviving boat to try for safety and rescue for their companions. They would not reach it for months. In the meantime, Prentice would wander the seas, contemplate cannibalism, and make contact with native peoples.


Gathered about him at the beginning of his harrowing journey, sailors clasp their hands and look with pleading faces to the brave young army officer, while others manage the boat against the harsh sea.


Ashore are a number of unfortunate jacks. Those closest to us are rather pitiful looking, but their clothing doesn't much show it. All wear trousers and jackets. One, to the left and with his stick across his lap, appears to be wearing a smock with a short collar. In the middle kneels a tar with a Canadian cap and striped trousers. The others wear short caps, possibly knit of linen working caps. Of the seven or so sailors visible in this scene three carry walking sticks, and a four has a stick nearby which appears to be a makeshift walking stick.

The numerous instances of sailors ashore depicted with sticks was a great surprise to me when I got a few months into this blog. This image, perhaps more than any other, shows just how important this accessory was to Jack Tar. Starving, freezing, and despairing to the point of death, they still cling to their sticks. One appears to have even taken the time and energy to fashion his own out of the barren landscape.


Loading and manning the boat are a few more sailors. At the tiller is a rather well dressed man, who might well be the hapless captain of the St. Lawrence. The other tree are clearly sailors. Furthest forward is a man in petticoat trousers that run to the top of the thigh, showing off his dark stockings. His jacket is clearly tucked into the petticoat trousers. He wears a round hat with a narrow brim, possibly bound in matching tape.

The two other sailors wear single breasted jackets and white neckcloths. The one standing wears a pair of trousers with a broad fall, and his jacket ends right at the waist. His hat might be a cocked hat, but it is difficult to tell. His mate wears a round hat with a narrow brim, falling back on his head.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rochester, Kent: From the North, c.1790


Rochester, Kent, From the North, Thomas Girtin, c.1790, Yale Center for British Art via Google Art Project.

I am reluctant to include this piece. Thomas Girtin was a wonderful watercolorist who helped to elevate the medium to profound respect. At the ripe age of 19 he exhibited at the Royal Academy. As a boy, Girtin apprenticed to Edward Dayes, who was about ten years his senior. This gives a narrow window into which this piece could fit within the dates explored in this blog. The curators at the Yale Center for British Art give this piece an approximate date of 1790. Girtin was most active from 1790-1810. If "Rochester, Kent: From the North" dates to 1790, it is one of Girtin's earliest pieces.




Rochester is an ancient city, with settlement dating to as early as the Neolithic period. Near the center of the frame, we see Rochester Castle which was originally constructed in the 12th century. To the left is Rochester Cathedral, which is even older, with construction beginning about 1080. Beside these medieval structures are the trades of the 18th century. Behind the trees between Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral are a pair of windwills. Down at the waterfront is the skeleton of a large vessel.


Where there are ships, there are sailors. These tars rest, smoke, and chat by the Thames. Three of them gather in a semicircle, while a fourth man (perhaps a farmer) gestures to the right.


Sitting atop short gray barrel, our first jack wears a short blue jacket without cuffs. A black neckcloth fits about his neck, and his gray hair lays about should length. In his hand is a round hat with a conical crown. He also wears white trousers with narrow blue vertical stripes, gray or white stockings, and pointed toe shoes with oval buckles.


At center, a sailor stands tall with a long clay pipe between his fingers. His jacket is brown, resting over a blue waistcoat with significant cutaway. There is a black neckcloth tied against a blue and white shirt. Whether the shirt is check or striped is unclear. His black round hat is rather rumpled, but appears to have a roughly conical crown. Slops/petticoat trousers hand down to his knees, where we see blue stockings and black pointed toe shoes.

Sitting beside him and gesturing in his conversation is our third jack. He wears a wide brimmed round hat with a rounded crown. His blue jacket, striped trousers, and shoes all match those of his mate. At his neck is an orange and white striped neckcloth.


The fourth figure is a bit enigmatic. He wears a short brimmed brown round hat with a rounded crown, a blue neckcloth or shirt, a plain smock, and plain trousers. The stick over his shoulder appears to be a tool of some sort; perhaps a hoe or axe. It might be a sailor's stick, but the way he holds it is quite different from any posture I've seen sailors use. At that, he appears to be outside the conversation of the three sailors, and only just now striding up to them. It may be that he is an agricultural laborer. Or, I could be entirely wrong and he could indeed be a sailor. His clothes are not unlike those of a central figure in "Watson and the Shark."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ships off the Gun Wharf at Portsmouth, late 18th century


Ships off the Gun Wharf at Portsmouth, 1770, Dominic Serres, late 18th century, National Maritime Museum.

Today I return to that esteemed maritime artist Dominic Serres. Here he portrays a number of vessels lying off Gun Wharf, an Ordnance Yard that isn't seeing much motion. Given that this is between the Seven Years/French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War, it makes sense that Gun Wharf is rather quiet. Nonetheless, there are a few figures scattered about. A few work on a gun carriage and miscellaneous crates to the left. Some officers are clustered just to the right of the center foreground. The naval officer among the trio gestures to a clustered group of tars to the right.


We can only see one fairly well. He lifts a cap or round hat in reply to the officer, baring his head and short hair. His blue jacket hangs open, showing his black neckcloth. The resolution is too low on this image to tell if he is without a waistcoat, or wearing a white single-breasted piece. We can say that he is wearing a pair of slops/petticoat trousers that run down to the top of his calf. Interestingly, his stockings are black or a dark blue.


Behind the lone tar are three seamen working at a boat that is just beneath our view. Reaching up to the single mast is a man in a red jacket with a black hat: either a knit cap or a round hat. To his left is a man in his shirtsleeves with a black cap as well. Looking up toward the sailor waving his hat is a fellow in  a barge cap with a silver device, blue jacket, and black neckcloth.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The deplorable state of America, or Sc--ch Government, 1766


The Deplorable State of America, or Sc-h Government, artist unknown, 1766, Lewis Walpole Library.

Britannia, Freedom, the King, America, and other metaphorical figures are crowded about the center of this political cartoon. With a couple of references to the Stamp Act, this cartoon is apparently in opposition to the revenue raising measure and its effect on America. While much of it is admittedly beyond me, we do find familiar figures to the left. The sailors stand around a few boats, one of which sports a broom at the masthead, indicating a triumph.


The first figure to speak (if we read it left to right) is a gallows. It declares itself a "Fit Entertainment for St[am]p M[e]n." The other figures by the gallows may not be sailors, but there is too little detail to be sure. I can confidently assert that the figures in the foreground of the above detail are sailors. They wear round hats with short, rounded crowns and wide brims. Plain neckcloths are fitted about their collar, and they wear short jackets that end below the waist. The one turned toward us, and pointing toward the gallows, appears to be without a waistcoat. All of them wear slops/petticoat trousers that extend to about halfway down the calf.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Drawing, date unknown


Drawing, Robert Pollard, date unknown, British Museum.

The apparent companion piece to yesterday's subject, this Pollard sketch gives us a much better picture of the common sailor. Three tars stand beside a sizable gun, watching their mates pummel each other to the apparent disinterest of the officers in yesterday's sketch.

Though difficult to see in the above image, the fellow to the far right is the boxer. Interestingly, he wears a cocked hat with a large cockade on his right! His hair runs into a queue, rather unusual for a sailor. Still, he wears a short jacket and no waistcoat, both of which are more common among tars. Otherwise he wears plain breeches and stockings running to a shoe with a pointed toe.

Just to the right is a tall, hatless man with curly hair. He wears a jacket with drop down collar and what appear to be turned back cuffs. Like the others, he wears no waistcoat. His petticoat trousers are drawn up just a bit so we can see the knee of his breeches before the plain stockings.

Leaning over the gun is another of their mates. This one wears a knit Monmouth cap. His jacket is like that of the last fellow, with drop down collar, but no cuffs. Though it is unclear, I think he wears a single breasted waistcoat and cravat. We get a pretty decent view of the pocket to his petticoat trousers.

In the background is the last of their mates. Perhaps he wears a round hat with a tall, cylindrical crown, the type more commonly seen after 1780. Alternatively, and given the rough edges of the brim, it could be interpreted as a tall Dutch cap. Unfortunately, there isn't enough detail in the figure to be more exact.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Two young gentlemen and a sailor boxing, date unknown


"Two young gentlemen and a sailor boxing," Robert Pollard, date unknown, British Museum.

The sketch above depicts a pair of naval officers sharing a conversation while a sailor puts up his dukes. He appears to be boxing a fellow off of the frame, who is tentatively identified as the tar in another of Pollard's images in the British Museum.

Our hatless sailor wears close cut and wavy hair, What appears to be a plain neckcloth is tied around his neck, with the knot to the back. His plain shirt does not appear to have its sleeves rolled up, but is tucked into striped trousers that run down to the top of his ankles.