November 2015 | Dr. Anya Matthews, Research Curator

We invited Dr Chris Ware to give a talk at Admiral’s House to celebrate Trafalgar Day. Chris was formerly on the curatorial staff of the National Maritime Museum, and is now a Senior Lecturer in Maritime history at the University of Greenwich. He has written on a range of maritime subjects covering the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, including Admiral George Byng.

Aware that ‘maritime affairs’ are vital historical context for understanding the iconography of the Painted Hall, Chris explained that England’s rise to maritime pre-eminence was neither inexorable nor inevitable during the latter part of the seventeenth century, in the wake of the three Anglo-Dutch Wars. Among the many wonderful maritime portraits Chris showed us was that depicting the broadside and stern of the Britannia, a 100-gun first rate ship of the line from the 1682 to 1715. The extraordinary carved, gilded and glazed stern of the Britannia was, as Chris explained, that of a vessel designed to impress and to advertise British sea power; the fighting was done by smaller ships.

Britannia under sail with other men-of-war, in a 1683 painting by Isaac Sailmaker.

Armed with these kinds of insights, we were then invited to look again at the ornate gilded stern of the British man-of-war that adorns the west end of the Lower Hall ceiling and to think about the messages the Hospital Directors wished to convey about the emergent Royal Navy. Chris suggested we should regard this element of the ceiling as a statement of aspiration and intent - an attempt to lay claim to a dominance that was by no means assured at this stage - rather than an unproblematic celebration of British maritime might.

The Ship's Stern in the magnificent Painted Hall © Roger M Stevens.

We learned, too, just how blurred the boundaries were between the embryonic Royal Navy (an entity really only in existence, as we understand it today, from the Restoration) and the merchant navy at this date; and how naval officers such as John Jennings (a director of Greenwich Hospital) and George Byng were fashioning themselves as men of political and social substance through the patronage of leading artists (Sir Godfrey Kneller, for example) and by commissioning of vast country houses (Southill Park in the case of Byng).

Chris explained, too, that the choice of naval victories included on the scroll just to the left of the Thornhill self-portrait on the west wall of the Painted Hall was carefully designed to present a narrative of British maritime pre-eminence stretching from the Spanish Armada to the present day. This was, he argued, a piece of propaganda designed to convey the solidity of a regime that was particularly precarious.

The roll call of British naval victories on the West Wall (Damian Gillie).

Finally, Chris introduced us to the extraordinary journal of the mariner Edward Barlow who served as a seaman for the whole of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–7) aboard the third-rate Monck. Probably the most important first-hand account of seafaring in the seventeenth century, Barlow’s journal illustrations evoke very powerfully what Chris described as the ‘peradventure of seafaring’ at this date.

Drawing from the journal of the mariner Edward Barlow (1642–1706?) (Royal Museums Greenwich).

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