An English Man-of-War Taking Possession of a Ship
Two ships are portrayed in the center right of the image, a rowboat between them. The ship on the right is British, its flag displayed on the right side. It is more brightly colored and has more sails remaining than the ship on the left, which appears to be the conquered vessel. Pieces of shattered wood and rubble are scattered in the water surrounding the ships; one particularly prominent piece juts from the bottom edge of the picture into the left foreground.
Copyright, 2009, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Captain William Locker (1731-1800)
Cleveley worked for Captain Locker as a clerk between 1770 and 1773. Locker is very likely to have encouraged Cleveley to make his living as a marine painter (Tracy 72).
John Williams, nom de plume: Anthony Pasquin (1761-1818)
Williams was an art critic who commented on various marine and naval works. He compared Cleveley’s work to that of artist Philip de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) when both artists created renditions of the Glorious First of June (Tracy 11, 74-75).
The Hornet and Peacock
Included in The American Naval Songster, this image is similar to An English Man-of-War; however, it portrays an American ship posed in victory over a British ship.
Battle of the Glorious First of June
This image by Philip de Loutherbourg is an example of a more dramatic marine painting; if more immediately impressive, however, de Loutherbourg's work was deemed less technically accurate than Cleveley’s depiction of the same event by John Williams.
Morn and Even of the Great Victory of the British Fleet under Earl Howe on 1 June 1794
Two other paintings by Robert Cleveley, these were the works that Williams most compared to de Loutherbourg's Battle of the Glorious First of June. Cleveley presents the battle depicted by these works in a considerably more ordered fashion than de Loutherbourg. As Williams suggested in his review of Cleveley's work, this demonstrates Cleveley’s tendency to favor authenticity over drama.
Robert Cleveley was one of many marine artists hired by the navy to create paintings like An English Man-of-War Taking Possession of a Ship, which were then sold to the elite of British society. Many similar images were converted into prints and purchased by the general public (Tracy 5, 72).
Marine. British Navy. Seascape.
Robert Cleveley uses light to further emphasize the figures of the two foremost ships. The horizon is deeply shadowed, as are the ships disappearing into it. The melding of the distant ships with the horizon line impresses upon the viewer the vastness of the continuing sea, and so alludes to the sublime. The faint visibility of these ships encountering the sublime implies the power of the British navy to extend imperial control over distant seas and lands. However, John Williams’s comparison of Cleveley’s work with de Loutherbourg's reveals the value that was placed on the accuracy, and thus the “truth,” of a work as well as its ability to “impress” viewers with the Romantic and dramatic elements more explicit in pieces like Battle of the Glorious First of June. The desire to maintain accuracy in marine paintings can be related to the national pride associated with these images: Williams's emphasis on a "correct" image devoid of theatrical effects may imply the assumption that British naval power was powerful and artistically valuable in and of itself, and so did not require the kind of exaggeration employed by de Loutherbourg.
Bénézit, E., et al. "Cleveley, Robert." Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Paris: Gründ, 2006. Print.
The American Naval and Patriotic Songster. Baltimore, 1831. Print.
Tracy, Nicholas. Britannia's Palette: The Arts of Naval Victory. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2007. Print.
Yale Center for British Art