Paintings of large British warships at sea are a classic in any art gallery, but the seemingly British tradition owes its origins to a Dutch father and son who emigrated to the UK.

Willem van de Velde the Elder was a draughtsman and expert at drawing ships, while his son, unsurprisingly called the Younger, was a painter who often turned his father’s drawings into the sort of paintings we think of as timeless classics today.

The two moved to England following an invitation from King Charles II in 1672, following the so-called Disaster Year, when France invaded the Dutch Republic

As they were already well known artists, they were warmly welcomed by the King and given space in Greenwich’s Queen’s House to work, and they radically changed how maritime painting was seen in the UK.

To mark the 350th anniversary of when they got to work, Queen’s House has managed to bring together a large collection of their paintings and drawings and filled the house with marine art.

They’ve even recreated the artist’s studio based on a painting of it made during their lives.

What’s impressive is the combination of technical accuracy in how they depicted the ships of the time, but also how they created atmospheric paintings at the same time. You can almost smell the smoke in some of them so vivid is the impression given.

There’s a rather fanciful painting made later by a Victorian artist of the de Velde’s painting a battle from a nearby coast. In fact, they sketched, fast, and usually in a boat up close to the battle, and then when back on dry land, turned the sketches into full drawings and paintings.

That closeness to the action is why their drawings and paintings are so lifelike, and their diaries record how dangerous that could be, with the Elder’s small boat nearly being trapped between the Dutch and English fleet at the Battle of Solebay.

Their paintings weren’t just artistic though, they were propaganda.

The exhibition opens with a huge, and recently restored tapestry, which was commissioned by King Charles II to depict that very Battle of Solebay, which while not quite a victory was good enough for the King to show off about. Here, the huge fleet of ships can be seen in battle, and here in the exhibition also, possibly for the first time ever, the original preparatory sketches.

The Van de Veldes were paid a retainer by the King, but were allowed to top up their income from private sales, and with a large collection of sketches to work from, they were able to satisfy a fast growing British market that had fallen for their paintings big time.

Flattering the King is wise, and there’s a very detailed painting of King Charles II’s departure for England when the monarchy was restored, and although the focus is on the foreground and the small boats, look deeper into the distance and see the size of the English fleet waiting to escort him home.

Away from the monumental, the Elder was a recorder of people, with many drawings of the people who worked in and around the ships. Some are clearly studies of typicals to be added into other larger compositions, but some do appear to be actual scenes that he observed.

It wasn’t until J.M.W. Turner put brush to canvas that British painting emerged from the legacy created by the Van de Veldes, and Turnet himself said they inspired him to become a painter.

That’s quite some legacy.

If you like big bold paintings of sea battles and want to see some of the many sketches that underpin them, then this is the exhibition that’ll delight you.

The exhibition, The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, Art and the Sea is at Queen’s House in Greenwich until the end of this year.

And it’s free to visit, which for such a large display is quite remarkable.

The only niggle is that Queen’s House lacks a dedicated exhibition room, so the display is spread out around the building. That’s actually a positive as you see a lot more of the permanent display, but it might have been useful to have the Van de Velde’s art highlighted in some manner, such as a border on the display labels.


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One comment
  1. Geoff Cosson says:

    This is a fascinating exhibition.
    The Queen’s House itself is a wonderful gem, free to visit, with regular, free, lunchtime concerts given by students studying Music at Greenwich University, current occupants of Wren’s riverside buildings.

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