These pages on the Eddystone lighthouses revise and replace those previously posted during 2003. They are greatly indebted to the generous advice, recommendations and co-operative interest of Maureen Attrill, Alison Barnes, Nigel Overton, Roger Quarm, Janet Tamblin, and Ken Trethewey. The errors contained in these pages, and the more contentious opinions aired below, are not necessarily theirs, but entirely mine.
From Chambers’ Book of Days, Vol II, 1864. With special thanks to Alison Barnes
Above is an imaginative Victorian engraving illustrating the destruction of Winstanley’s lighthouse, including its keepers and the architect himself, in 1703. Narrative history pictures are not, in normal circumstances, painted immediately after the events they portray. All that can be said with certainty is that they were not painted before. They could, however, be painted at any time at all, even centuries, after the event. Marine art-history seems bedevilled by failure to recognize this simple truth.
English marine painters in the early C18th were illustrators, not eye-witness reporters like the van de Veldes. Not one of the English painters, Sailmaker, Vale, Monamy, Scott, had any opportunity of watching a naval battle or other single-ship encounter at first-hand. Of the earlier names, Hollar had the remarkable fortune of being present at the battle of the Mary Rose against the Algerine pirates in 1669; but no native painter practising in England was favoured by the king with his personal galliot to attend and record a major sea-battle for posterity, as the van de Veldes were.
Humphrey Vale depicted the Relief of Barcelona, 1706, on a canvas dated 1713, seven years after the event. Monamy’s painting of the same action is dated 1725, nineteen years after the event. Scott’s painting of Wager’s Action off Carthagena, 1708 was executed probably in about 1745 or ’46, or approximately thirty-eight years after the event. I well recall attending a splendid exhibition of dramatic combat paintings in about 1990. These pictures recorded the stirring aerial duels of the Battle of Britain: a full fifty years after the events they were commemorating.
The line between illustration and other kinds of painting in oils was, it may be assumed, not strongly drawn at the beginning of the 18th century. Like any modern illustrator, who sifts through historic photographs and echoes classic compositions, these painters used a variety of aids to their trade, including prints and drawings by earlier practitioners. It is imperative to bear this in mind when attempting to understand their works; as well as to realise that the interpretation and recording of history can never accord precisely with wie es eigentlich gewesen, as von Ranke once put it. Nevertheless, some accounts of historical fact are decidedly nearer the truth than others.
The following three paintings by Monamy of the lighthouses on the Eddystone rock provide a remarkable insight into the way he went to work, as well as his progress over what I believe to be a ten or fifteen year period. Although complemented by his first-hand observation of water and sky, they do not depict these constructions as they ever actually appeared. In fact, they are idealised representations, and achieve their effect by Monamy’s heightened sense of occasion, and the strength of his appreciation of the unique achievement of their inventors, in particular the vision and indomitable spirit of Henry Winstanley, 1644-1703.
The pictures are displayed below in the order in which I believe them to have been painted, the last being finished anything up to 15 years after the first.. In the following pages I will refer to them as M1, M2 and M3. M1 and M3 portray Winstanley’s first lighthouse, 1696-1698. No painting by Monamy of Winstanley’s second construction, 1699-1703, is so far known.
A Lighthouse Medley
© Charles Harrison Wallace 2004