A painting of the Hare and a Lisbon packet boat post-1728?

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      At the Bodleian today I was consulted by the Curator of the John Johnson Collection and our Portraits Conservator concerning a marine painting. The painting – oil on canvas, approx 1m x 70cms – shows four British vessels, one in the centre foreground identified in thin writing along the hull as The Hare, 1728, one abaft of her as The Lisbon Packet 1719; two other larger ships are shown stern-on in the background to each side.
      All ships are wearing large red ensigns and the two foreground vessels have pre-1801 Union flags flying as jacks, although their sails are almost all set and filled, there are no men visible on the yards, no anchor is visible and there is water purling at their throats. The Hare’s Jack has a red fringe to the lower edge; I do not recall seeing a white saltire, just a blue ground with the George cross in red with white edging, but that may just be the dullness of patina – the painting needs cleaning and revarnishing.
      The Hare is shown from the portside beam; her scroll beakhead is articulated from the fo’c’sle, there are no discernable gunports, she has no poop but an ornate, gilded quarterlight. Her sails are set and filled apart from the mizzen main. I would guess her to be a ship-sloop of about 200 tons. The Lisbon Packet is smaller, a brig with no hull decoration; her sails are set and filled.
      The ships are very close to land in the foreground, a shore scene with a small boat drawn up with what might be a fish cran or perhaps large lobster pot on the bow, and several men working, apparently fisherfolk, with seated and standing women including three dressed in Iberian or Mediterranean type clothes (red skirt and blue jacket, red unsleeved dress, straw hat of the Greek classical type like the Victorian naval sennit hats). A rather odd-looking tree, almost bare of leaves but perhaps an olive, stands forlornly to one edge – perhaps it has an iconographical meaning?
      The sky is nicely painted and will look even better when cleaned – a bright blue sky with some high clouds, but not quite Mediterranean in feel. The sea is disappointing, dull in colour without texture or movement and the small waves onshore are not well observed.
      I have the feeling the artist was not experienced at painting the rigging of big ships although elements of the vessels are nicely draughted and painted such as the sails, or of observing seascapes, but he has a nice, free way with the sky, the figures and good atmospheric perspective.
      My hunch is that this is a double ship portrait made to commission by the commander of a Lisbon packet boat in 1719, promoted to the Hare in 1728; if that is right the two larger ships in the background may have been the subject of a pendant ship portrait, perhaps by the same artist.
      Alternatively, the picture could refer to an incident involving a Lisbon Packet; according to my early documentary research, there were problems guarding the Falmouth-Lisbon packets from the Sallee Rovers in the 1730s.
      There are several RN ships named Hare in Colledge and Warlow.1 The only one of the right period was a 10-gun sloop (brig or ship not noted), built in France and captured in September 1709 by the Speedwell, 28, and sold in 1712. In the National Archives there are records of several ships called the Hare in this period, including the Pay Book of a navy ship of 1709-1712; another reference, perhaps to the same ship, relates to a mariner’s will in 1717.2 In 1746 a merchant vessel named Hare, lying at London, was being offered for Government service in America, and a 10-gun, 100 ton armed merchantman named Hare is listed as the prize-taker in a Prize Court register of 1759.3
      Although this would mean a life of over 50 years – perhaps too long – it is possible that this is the same vessel, operating under a letter of marque in its later career.
      There is no signature or date on the painting and I have the impression that the original composition would have included more land in the foreground, and more to the view on each edge. I think the picture has been cut all round – there is damage to the canvas at the bottom edge and almost no selvedge under the frame, which has not yet been removed and is in any case not of the period; the canvas is hidden by a modern plywood panel. There may be clues on the back of the canvas when it is unframed.
      Stylistic and representational analysis suggests that the picture dates between 1700 and 1770 – a big enough spread for me to sound knowledgable without commitment! The dates written on the hulls may not be contemporary with the painting, but if they are, they give a date post-1728. If this is the pendant to another double ship portrait of the larger vessels, the work approaches 1750. It would not surprise me if the painting was not by a British artist. While not great marine art – no Pocock or Wylie – it is comparable with many marine paintings one sees in decent galleries and would look splendid in my study!
      This is a nice painting in need of cleaning, possibly re-canvassing and reframing, and then being hung to public gaze. The request to me was to judge whether it is worth spending £800 – 1000 on this. I approved it. Its value as a painting and as historical evidence probably exceeds what it might fetch at public auction, but even so, if I owned it I would see conservation and cleaning as a sound investment as well as an aesthetic improvement.
      The picture is in the Bodleian because it was amongst a very large collection of postal material bequeathed to us and is now included in our ephemera collection, and as such it is an important record of an interesting period in European communications. The picture used to hang in the Curator’s rather cluttered office but the building is shortly to be gutted for a major redevelopment so it is now going into store unless it is agreed to conserve and restore and then hang it. There is talk of me curating a small exhibition of our marine subjects.
      Can anyone cast any light on either of the vessels or a possible painter?

      Footnotes:
      1. Ships of the Royal Navy, JJ Colledge and Ben Warlow (eds), 2010
      2. National Archives of England and Wales (TNA) ADM33/287; TNA PROB 11/556
      3. TNA ADM 106/1036/91; TNA HCA 26/11/40

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