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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Rare Watercolor View of A British Port Painted For Napoleon

French View of the Port of Portsmouth
Watercolor on paper
Paper size: 20 x 27 inches
Inscribed lower center: “Vue du Port de Portsmouth... Lisle D’Huite... Prisone Flotante
Initialed “H.G.” and dated lower center with index to buildings and ships
Portsmouth, June 10, 1802


Northeast auctions - Property of Wells Henderson - the Greatest Collection of "the life of the sailor" and founder of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum

This intricately detailed watercolor view of Portsmouth, London was most likely created by a spy working for Napoleon. In the early nineteenth century during the  Napoleonic Wars, France was interested in British ports as potential points of entry. This extremely rare and beautifully rendered watercolor functions as both an artistic view and priceless intelligence about the structure of the Port, how heavily fortified it was at the time, and the locations of various buildings on shore. The artist carefully documented the name and position of each ship in handwritten notations below the painting, suggesting that his interest in the sights was more than just superficial.  

The artist who painted this view was stationed in London during a brief lapse in the ongoing dispute between Britain and his home land, France. Just a few months prior to the date this watercolor was completed, on March 27, 1802, an agreement signed at Amiens, France by Britain, France, Spain, and the Batavian Republic, achieved peace in Europe for 14 months during the Napoleonic Wars. It ignored some questions that divided Britain and France, such as the fate of the Belgian provinces, Savoy, and Switzerland and the trade relations between Britain and the French-controlled European continent. As a result, Amiens was a treaty without trust between the British and French, and both countries continued to strategize ways to continue the conflict. It is likely that Napoleon sensed the brevity of the treaty, and dispatched one his men to paint this view so that he might prepare for an invasion. The short-lived period of peace came to an end when Britain officially declared war on France in 1803, after failing to uphold her end of the Amiens Treaty.

Another interesting detail about this watercolor is its documentation of the prison system of 1802. The boats in the foreground of the painting form a prison flotilla; cargo ships transformed into cramped holding cells for convicts awaiting trial. In 1802 over 400 seafaring crimes were punishable by imprisonment and death. Thus, prisons on both sea and land overflowed with pirates, privateers, and mutineers. Since law enforcement at sea depended upon the naval armament and laws of countries who claimed rights to particular routes of travel, sailors from many different countries were imprisoned in often squalid and tiny quarters within the bowels of the floating jails. The most common crimes of international inmates ranged from illegal slave trading to privateering.

However, some crimes at sea depended on national viewpoint. One nation’s privateers (men who were licensed by their government, outfitted with armed ships, and given orders to seize any merchant ships they came across, take a portion of the loot, and give back a percentage to the government) were another nation’s pirates. The result of so many different naval laws was a tendency toward overcrowded prisons, lengthy international trials, and seas of legal red tape for the convicts.

Portsmouth has a long history of supporting the Royal Navy logistically, leading to it being important in the development of the Industrial Revolution. Marc Isambard Brunel, the father of famed Portsmouth engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, established in 1802 the world's first mass production line at the Portsmouth Block Mills, to mass produce pulley blocks for rigging on the Royal Navy's ships. At its height the Dockyard was the largest industrial site in the world.

The following emails are from Dr. Ulrike Boskamp

Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin  |   DFG-Forschergruppe 1703 »Transkulturelle Verhandlungsräume von Kunst/ Transcultural Negotiations in the Ambits of Art«
Freie Universität Berlin  |  Koserstr. 20   |   D-14195 Berlin  |  e: ulrike.boskamp@fu-berlin.de

On Sun, Sep 16, 2012 at 6:45 AM, Boskamp Ulrike wrote:

Dear Mr. Arader,

I am a German art historian at the Free University in Berlin, and I am currently working about the limits between landscape art and military reconnaissance and an artist a spy, on spies who draw or paint, and on the confounding of artists and spies, with examples starting around 1500 and ending around 1920. I am planning to do research in military archives next year and am working up to that, doing more research on the art side this year.

At the moment, I am preparing a chapter of a book on this topic, and it is on the confrontation between Napoleon and the British around 1800 and the use of topographical images in this conflict (a prominent case of confounding of art and spying took place in 1801, when the British artist George Moreland was suspected of spying for the French, proof being images of spaniels, a very strange story). I have only just started research for this chapter, also on the internet, and came across your website with the amazing view of Portsmouth which you are showing on your blog on January 12 of this year, and which is, of course, exactly what I am looking for. I do not know who the artist H.G. was, but maybe I can find it out, I would love to, anyway, and I will certainly try.

Now I would like to ask you two great favours: Would  it be possible for you to send me a high resolution scan of the picture to work with (and read all the texts and see the details)? And: would it be possible for you to allow me to print this image in the book I am preparing? I am working within a research project which will also cover most reproduction and copyright costs.

Thank you very much in advance (also for the publishing of the image and story on your blog which is a rare case of luck for me!) ad best regards,

Ulrike Boskamp
Dear Helene, dear Graham,

firstly, thank you very much, Helene, for the scan, and also for your offer to make another photograph. I would really appreciate this, as I can not read the text under the picture.

I can already tell you that the title of the picture is: "Vue du Port de Portsmouth Gosport L’isle D’Huite et les Prisons Flotantes." Gosport is the fortified town on the right, opposite Portsmouth, and the "isle D'Huite" ist the Isle of Wight, represented by the hills in the background, also on the right. I am sending you an older topographical print which makes the situation imaginable: The view is taken from inside the port, from near the castle in the middle ground, and we are looking towards the passage out, seeing Portsmouth on the left, Gosport on the right, and the Isle of Wight behind.

The old castle in the foreground is called Porchester, or Portchester castle. Here, as in the prison hulks, French prisoners of war were living, until they were freed in an amnesty which was part of the peace of Amiens in 1802 -  and then castle and hulks were re-filled with prisoners after war had broken out again. There were about 8000 prioners in the castle.  The prison hulks were moored in front of the castle.

One of the French prisoners of war on such a hulk was Ambrose-Louis Garneray who was prisoner from 1806 to 1814. He painted quite similar views of Portsmouth harbour from about the same viewpoint, but in oil, - three of them are now in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich (to be seen here: http://images.rmg.co.uk/en/search/do_quick_search.html?q=portsmouth+prison+hulks&qw=&srchType=on ). I am also attaching a (bad) scan of one of them. Garneray seems to have sold his pictures to the British, to increase his standard of living in the prison camp, and also afterwards, when he was released on parole. He later wrote three different autobiographies.

So I wonder whether your picture might not also have been made by one of the French prisoners. It  certainly seems that the view was  taken from the coast around Portchester.

That is my report for the moment,
thank you, and best regards

Dear Graham,

yes, I think that their lives were quite horrible, especially when they were ordinary soldiers, not officers. There is a book on it which I have not read, on the prison hulks, and it has a telling title: Paul Chamberlain, Hell upon Water, 2008. 

In one story about the painter Garneray, he and his fellow prisoners were taken off a prison hulk, and when they were brought back onto it, his painting materials had been stolen by the British. So I gather from this that he did have painting materials on board the hulk. He also made designs for pictures that were then realised from straw (woven?)  by his fellow prisoners and then sold to the British (one occasion to do this seems to have been the Sunday service in the church within the walls of Portchester castle where both villagers of Portchester and the prisoners went). But I have not read his autobiographies yet - just ordered one yesterday. The prisoners could also somehow shop from the British, and there was a lot of exchanging going on through the guards.
All this is completely new to me, so bear with me...
Best Regards,

[Do you think it was drawn by a prisoner or could it be a spy?]

Dear Graham, 

I do not know. After the general amnesty it would be strange if there was still a prisoner around. The Amiens peace treaty, (I just looked at it) said that the prisoners of war were to be sent back home within 6 weeks, and it was signed on March 27th. So on June 10th, the prisoners would have been gone. The hulks look empty to me on your picture (are they?), so that fits.  H.G. might have been an ex-prisoner who stayed around, or indeed a spy.  The strange thing is the viewpoint around Portchester Castle which somehow defines the view as that of a prisoner.

Anyway, the date on the picture seems to tell us that we are seeing the situation as it presented itself precisely on June 10th, 1802. I am trying to understand what the French might have wanted to know about Portsmouth harbour at this date. After the  of prisoners of war into France they would have had a lot of information already, but maybe not such visual information. I really can not say if this picture contains important information that the French did not have. But it is very clear that H.G. wants to transfer  information - otherwise he would not have put numbers and the legend onto this -  and he wants to  be precise about the boats. He not just mentions and shows the functioning British and the captured French warships, but he seems to be very exact about the hulks. Would the French have been interested in the position of the prison hulks, and why? Maybe in order to be able to free prisoners in the next round of a war? 

Also they might have been interested in the position of the sandbanks, and the number and kind of warships present in the harbor. And of course in the dockyard, where a prisoner of war would never have been allowed to go - and where the important informations would not have been topographical. 

It is a general problem of my project: one has to find out first of all what information was available, and in which medium (in maps? drawings?), and what information was needed. For the French invasion plans, tinformation on coastlines and possible landing points was needed, and some spies were actually caught with drawings of coastlines. But I never saw the pictures, and have not started to look in archives.

There is a good example where it is easy: In 1799 the British painter J. T. Serres went out with the Channel Fleet to sketch the coastline of France, starting at Brest. He was producing visual information, but not mapping. That means that his product was understandable for people who were unable to read maps. The reason for this was that in the Channel, most ships (including military ones) were not using maps at all and relied on collected information in books kept on board which often included drawings of the coast. And such views were missing, and were produced by this military draughtsman who would have been a spy had he gotten off the boat…
Best wishes

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