Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An original sketch by an English officer on board of one of Adml. Howe's Fleet while at anchor in New York Harbor, 1776

An original sketch by an English officer on board of one of Adml. Howe's Fleet while at anchor in New York Harbor, just after the Battle of Long Island, Thomas Davies, 1776, New York Public Library.

Special thanks to Todd Braisted for pointing this out to me. For anybody interested in the loyalist experience during the American Revolutionary War, he's the guy to go to. His website is great, take a look!

Combined operations between the Royal Navy and the British army were crucial in the American Revolutionary War. New York was arguably the most successful of these. Tens of thousands of Hessian and British troops were carried ashore in flat bottomed boats manned by British sailors.

The brothers Howe (General and Admiral) broke the back of the Continentals, who fled Long Island in disorder. This image shows a few warships lying at anchor with backed sails in New York Harbor just after the battle. At the time, it would be easy to think that the war would be short lived, and perhaps that accounts for the simple, pacific feel of Davies' piece.

Thomas Davies was an officer of the Royal Artillery, and so had an eye for geography. This was enhanced by his inclination to natural science and reflected in his artistic skill.

Davies depicts two men rowing their boat in the foreground. The boat has an oddly high prow, but I am no expert in the historical construction or appearance of small boats. Each oarsman wears a round hat and jacket.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Two young gentlemen and a sailor boxing, date unknown

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

'Three men standing by a cannon, another figure boxing to left,' Robert Pollard, date unknown, British Museum.

Robert Pollard was a painter and engraver who was especially active in the 1780's, though also well beyond. Maritime subjects were a favorite of Pollard's, and especially catastrophic wrecks like the Halsewell, Centaur, and Grosvenor. In these sketches, perhaps studies for an unfinished engraving, are in a different vein. Two officers stand casually, half watching a boxing match between a sailor and a young man in a cocked hat with cockade who wears a queue.

Given the length of the young fellow's hair and the cockade on his hat, it is possible that he is a midshipman. This is interesting, in that he appears to be fighting a common sailor, with short cut hair, in his shirtsleeves, and striped trousers. Perhaps he is also a midshipman, and wearing working clothes, but it is an odd juxtaposition. In any case, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, save for the midshipman himself, who looks rather worried.

 Boxing has a complicated history afloat. Ostensibly forbidden aboard warships, it was practiced anyway. When Christopher Hawkins was taken up as a young man by a Royal Navy warship from his American privateer in 1777, he experienced this first hand: 'Boxing was not allowed on board the frigate yet the boys would sometimes play the pugilist, and no notice would be taken of it by the officers.' Olaudah Equiano's experience with officers and pugilism was not just a benign neglect, but active encouragement:
On the passage, one day, for the diversion of those gentlemen, all the boys were called on the quarter-deck, and were paired proportionally, and then made to fight; after which the gentleman gave the combatants five to nine shillings each. This was the first time I ever fought with a white boy; and I never knew what it was to have a bloody nose before. This made me fight most desperately; I suppose considerably more than an hour; and at last, both of us being weary, we were parted. I had a great deal of this kind of sport afterwards, in which the captain and the ship's company used very much to encourage me.

Given that this is a rather aged sketch, I have taken the liberty of enhancing it a touch so that we might better see the sailors at their game.

Our hatless boxer wears close cut and wavy hair. A few lined at the back of his head give the hint of what might be a handkerchief, but I can't be sure. His plain shirt does not appear to have its sleeves rolled up, but is tucked into trousers with vertical stripes that run down to the top of his ankles.

While the nervous boxer stands in the far left of the frame, three smiling sailors watch his progress.

This mariner wears his curly hair loose and cut well above the shoulder. His jacket has a calling collar, and it appears that he is wearing a closely knotted neckcloth. His waistcoat is open to at least the center of the chest. Around his waist is a pair of petticoat trousers, with breeches perfectly visible on his right knee.

These two wear caps of differing styles. The one in the foreground appears to be wearing a knit cap, which may also be the case with his mate. Both wear the same style of jacket as the sailor to the left, and notable the sailor in foreground here wears a ruffled garment at his neck. While I cannot be sure if he wears trousers or petticoat trousers, the pocket is perfectly clear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


It is common in historical reenacting to assert that sailors often went barefoot when afloat, but what do the sources say?

Very few images depict sailors entirely barefoot. I have examined well over 400 images created between 1740-1790, ranging from high art to political cartoons and everything in between. Of these, only three shows sailors with neither shoes nor stockings.

The earliest depiction in my era of study is a political cartoon that includes a pair of barefoot sailors. Notably they are ashore, and the point of the cartoon is to show them dis-empowered and in the thrall of an enemy. It could be that the artist, Samuel Lyne, was intending to show a certain poverty among the sailors.

Detail from Bob the Political Ballance Master, Samuel Lyne, 1742, British Museum.
Less ambiguous is Thomas Hearne's portrayal of a sailor working on the 20 gun Deal Castle. Though painted in 1804, Hearne was present for the 1775 voyage, and based the painting on sketches taken at the time.
Detail form A scene on board His Majesty's ship 'Deal Castle' the year 1775
Thomas Hearne, 1804, National Maritime Museum.
Julius Caesar Ibbetson also depicts sailors afloat without shoes or stockings, but they are mixed between both men with shod feet and those without. Like Hearne, he was present for this event, and illustrated it at is happened.
Detail from Crossing the Line Ceremony on Board the Ship, 'Vestal,'
Julius Caesar Ibbetson, c.1788, Yale Center for British Art.
As with Ibbetson and Hearne, Gabriel Bray painted the below from life. Bray is made all the more reliable an artist by the fact that he was a naval officer, and more intimately familiar with sailors and their ways. In this we see that the sailors both on deck and aloft wear shoes. However, the sailor leaning on the gun is clearly without stockings.
Detail from Seaman Leaning on a Gun on the Pallas,
Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.
The common sailors themselves have little to say on the matter. Like most material culture in this class, it was not considered remarkable enough to record, and no journal, memoir, or novel penned by a common sailor that I have read has yet cast much light on this. When sailors do mention going barefoot, it is only as an exception and in an unusual circumstance.

Jacob Nagle, after escaping to shore and leaving his shoes aboard, had this unfortunate experience in 1781:
I having no shoes, I could scarcely walk. He rode ahead to New Castel and bought me a pair of shoes and had a dinner provided for us all. In a few days we arived in Philadelphia, but my feet were so inflamed I could not put them to the flore.
Samuel Kelly also lost his shoes and much of his clothing in 1784:
Having neither shoes nor stockings this called my feet severely, as well as my shoulder, having nothing on it but a shirt or canvas frock.
William Williams, writing the semi-autobiographical novel The Journal of Penrose, Seaman, relates the clothing that remains on his eponymous character after a spell as a Spanish prisoner in the 1740's:
Here I shall give the reader a rough draught of my Garb as I then appear'd. (Viz) a long pair of ragged and narrow Spanish trowsers,  a fragment of an old blue Shirt not enough to pass under my waistband, a remnant of an old Red handkerchief round my head, without either shoe or stocking to my feet. I had yet my old blue bonnet.
Depictions of sailors and their own words do not provide us much evidence for working afloat without shoes. This is by no means definitive, and there is more research to be done. Working barefoot probably occurred (the evidence from Hearne's Deal Castle painting is compelling), but it is impossible to say how frequently this happened.

Monday, December 4, 2017

South Elevation of the Stone Lighthouse Completed Upon the Edystone in 1759, 1763

South Elevation of the Stone Lighthouse Completed Upon the Edystone in 1759, engraved by Edward Rooker, figures by Samuel Wale, 1763, Bonhams.

The Eddystone Light is a fixture in the maritime culture of Britain. A true marvel of engineering, this version was completed in 1759.

This 1763 print does not appear to be what the auction page is referring to. Bonhams states that this is a book about the Eddystone published in 1791. Even the engraver does not appear to be the same, with Bonhams identifying him as H. Hughes, whose name does not appear on the print.

A small crew of sailors carry a gentleman (perhaps a sea captain) to the stone. Each wears a cocked hat and shirtsleeves, with bob wigs or their hair bobbed in a seamanlike fashion. At the bow stands a fellow with a single breasted jacket, extending his boathook to the ring presumably installed for that purpose. He wears plain trousers.