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The First Battle of Schooneveld, 28 May 1673

Willem van de Velde, the Elder, The First Battle of Schooneveld, 28 May 1673, pen and brush on canvas, 544 x 746 mm, dated 1684. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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The artist has adopted a high viewpoint to show the First Battle of Schooneveld, during the Third Dutch War, 1672-74. Although he was present, the painting was produced eleven years after the event from drawings made at the time. The battle took place in the Schooneveld, a narrow basin at the mouth of the River Schelde, between the Dutch fleet under Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter in the ‘Zeven Provincien’, 80 guns, and the English and French Allied fleets. These were led by Prince Rupert in the ‘Royal Charles’, 96 guns, and the Comte d’Estrées in ‘La Reine’. Early in 1673 the Test Act had forced the Duke of York, as a Roman Catholic, to relinquish the command of the fleet. Consequently Prince Rupert assumed command under the King. The Allied objective was to bring the Dutch to action and either defeat them or blockade their coast to cover the landing of an Allied army. In this action the Allies fleet had superiority in fire-power, with seventy-nine ships against fifty-two Dutch. Prince Rupert sent a mixed squadron towards the Dutch anchorage to tempt de Ruyter out. De Ruyter chased the Allied forces back to their fleet and battle commenced at noon, lasting for nine hours. Overall, one Dutch ship was captured and then recaptured and the Dutch ‘Deventer’, 70 guns, sank at anchor on the night after the battle: the French lost two ships sunk and the English none, although their loss of life was heavier than the Dutch. The picture shows the action at about four o’clock in the afternoon and the profusion of ships taking part. They can be partly identified by a key written in Italian, which accompanies the picture but is only partly illegible. The main engagements are shown taking place in the middle distance. In the left background there are mostly English ships of the red squadron. Prince Rupert and his squadron are shown moving towards the right and engaged with the squadron of Cornelis Tromp, in the ‘Gouden Leeuw’. The recognizable English ships include the ‘London’ with a flag at the fore marked ‘6’ and ahead of this is ‘La Reine’ marked with a ‘d’ on the white flag at the fore. Astern of the ‘Royal Charles’ is the ‘Charles’ with a flag at the mizzen marked with a ‘c’. Further away with their flags showing above the English ships are the ‘Golden Leeuw’, which has a striped flag at the fore marked with a ‘5’, the ‘Pacificatie’ with a striped flag at the fore marked ‘6’. Leading Tromp’s squadron and closely engaged with ‘La Reine’ is the ‘Hollandia’, with a flag at the mizzen marked ‘7’. Dutch ships recognizable in the left distance are the ‘Eendracht’, with a flag at the main marked ‘3’, and the ‘Maagd van Dordrecht’ with a flag at the mizzen marked ‘4’. In the centre moving in the same direction are the squadrons of de Ruyter and d’Estrées. On the right, moving from right to left, are the squadrons of Sir Edward Spragge in the ‘Prince’ in the middle-distance and Banckaert, to the left, in ‘Walcheren’, 68 guns, which is marked ‘8’ on the flag at the main. The ‘Prince’ is marked ‘g’ and she is shown awaiting the attack of de Ruyter and Banckert, who are in the centre of the picture moving towards Spragge’s blue squadron in an attempt to cut it off from the rest of the Allied fleet. The ‘Zeven Provincien’ is marked ‘1’ and astern of the ‘Prince’ is the ‘St Andrew’ with the flag at the fore marked ‘h’. The rear-admiral of the blue squadron, Lord Ossory, is more in foreground and to the left in the ‘St Michael’, engaged at long distance with de Ruyter. Other Dutch ships are recognizable between de Ruyter and Banckaert are the ‘Vrijheid, marked ‘2’ on the flag at the fore, and the ‘Zierikzee’ with a flag at the fore marked ‘9’. The ‘Orgueilleux’ is shown close ahead of de Ruyter marked ‘e’. In the foreground on the left is a French snow and, passing her, an English snow. To the right is the English ketch from which the artist was sketching the battle. On the right is a French fire-ship, marked ’13’, burning to the water’s edge and just beyond this a French fire-ship, marked ’12’, is sinking. On the extreme right an English royal yacht is marked ’14’ and another English yacht is passing her under sail to starboard. This was the first battle the artist sketched from the English side and he also produced a painting of the Second Battle of Schooneveld. Born in Leiden, van de Velde moved to Amsterdam with his two sons Adriaen and Willem, who were also painters. The former and elder painted landscapes but with Willem, the younger, he formed a working partnership specializing in marine subjects which lasted to his own death. Willem the elder was primarily a draughtsman who spent his career drawing ships and is believed to be one of the earliest artists to accompany fleets into action to record these events. He did this officially with the Dutch fleet from 1653. The resultant works, known as grisaille drawings or more accurately as pen-paintings (‘penschilderingen’), were done in pen and ink on prepared lead-white panels or canvases. This technique enabled van de Velde’s work to be full of detail and show his knowledge of shipping. He originally applied a cross-hatching technique to show darkness and shadow but from the 1650s increasingly used a brush to indicate shadow, clouds or waves. Van de Velde was the leading Dutch master in marine grisailles but also produced a handful of oils towards the end of his life. He briefly visited England twice, in 1661 and 1662, but by 1673 had moved there permanently with Willem the younger. Both worked for Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, and they became the founders of the English school of marine painting. A great deal is known about him thanks to a list of his depictions of naval battles compiled in January 1678 by Captain Christopher Gunman. The painting is signed and dated ‘W V Velde f.1684/oudt. 73 Jaren’, lower left.

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