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A Royal Visit to the Fleet in the Thames Estuary, 1672

Willem van de Velde, the Younger, A Royal Visit to the Fleet in the Thames Estuary, 1672, oil on canvas, 1651 x 3300 mm, dated perhaps 1696. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

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During the summer of 1672 Charles II visited ships of the fleet that were refitting in the Thames following the Battle of Solebay in May of that year. This may record a visit that took place on 10 September when the king was on board the yacht ‘Cleveland’. The yacht in the left foreground is probably the ‘Anne’, which was used by his brother James, Duke of York. She flies the red ensign and is decorated with the figure of a woman holding a crown in her right hand on her stern, together with putti holding a garland above her head. In port-quarter view and further away on the ‘Anne’s’ starboard bow is the ‘Cleveland’ with her mainsail hauled up and a man aloft hauling down the royal standard. This indicates that King Charles has transferred from the ‘Cleveland’ to hold a council-of-war on board the ‘Prince’, on the right, the principal ship in the painting. This is viewed in port-broadside and stern view, at anchor with a number of other craft around her. These include French boats, France being allied with England in the Third Dutch War of 1672-74. The painting is a busy scene of yachts and boats moving towards the ‘Prince’ in response to the signal of a royal standard in the mizzen shrouds calling a council-of-war of all flag officers. The ‘Prince’ also flies the royal standard at the main, the Admiralty flag at the fore and the Union flag at the mizzen. There are tricolour ‘common’ pendants at each masthead below the flags and pendants at the main and main-topsail yardarms. A yacht passing under the ‘Prince’s’ stern is thought to be the ‘Kitchen’. In the centre distance is the ‘London’, 96 guns, with the new admiral of the blue squadron, Sir Edward Spragge, who had replaced the Earl of Sandwich, drowned while escaping from his burning flagship ‘Royal James’ at Solebay. In the centre foreground is a French ship’s barge pulling towards the ‘Prince’. The king’s barge with the royal standard in the bow is shown alongside the ‘Prince’. To the right a French and English boat appear to be in collision. The ‘Royal Sovereign’, 100 guns, is shown in the right background, flying the red flag of Sir Joseph Jordan at the fore, following his promotion to Vice-Admiral of the Red after Solebay. On the extreme right is the forepart of a Dutch bezan yacht, thought to be the one given to Charles II in 1661. The vessels in the background under sail are mainly ketches. In the background there are ships at anchor and the low land of Essex is visible in the distance. The Duke of York’s flag captain, Sir John Narborough, recorded several royal visits between June and September in 1672 in his journal. The subject of this painting may have been suggested to the artist by the Duke of York soon after the van de Veldes arrived in England in 1672. Early in 1673 the Test Act forced the Roman Catholic duke to relinquish command of the fleet and so this picture represents one of the last occasions when he commanded the fleet at sea. The artist was the younger son of Willem van de Velde the Elder. Born in Leiden, he studied under Simon de Vlieger in Weesp and in 1652 moved back to Amsterdam. There he worked in his father’s studio and developed the skill of carefully drawing and painting ships in tranquil settings. He changed his subject matter, however, when he came with his father to England in 1672, by working on views of royal yachts, men-of-war and on storm scenes. From 1672 the depiction of sea battles from the English side became a priority but unlike his father’s they were not usually eyewitness accounts. However, from early 1674 both the van de Veldes were expressly patronized by Charles II for this purpose, the father to draw sea fights and the son – who was by far the more accomplished painter – ‘for putting the said Draughts into Colours’. After his father’s death in 1693 he continued to run a substantial and influential studio until his own death and with his father, especially as a painter, he is regarded as founder of the English school of marine painting. This painting is signed ‘W. Van de Velde de Jonge’ and perhaps dated 1696.

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