by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
The Gouden Leeuw at the Battle of Texel, 21 August 1673 by Van de Velde the Younger, 1687

The Dutch family who ruled the waves

By Roderick Conway Morris
GREENWICH, London 6 October 2023


In 1672 Charles II was at war with the Dutch Republic yet he took the opportunity to distribute a pamphlet in English, Dutch and French 'to encourage the subjects of the United Provinces of the Netherlands to transport themselves, together with their Families, Estates, Goods, and Merchandise into His Majesties Kingdom of England'.

Other inducements included freedom of religion, tax breaks, free naturalization and, for those engaged in maritime trades, immunity from blockades and the risk of pressing into the Royal Navy.

In that same year, what came to be called in the Netherlands the Year of Disaster, the Dutch Republic was simultaneously attacked by England, France and the Bishoprics of Münster and Cologne, the economy collapsed and the art market with it. Among the victims was Vermeer, who went bankrupt. But two Dutch marine artists, Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger responded to England's siren call and it was largely through these two highly talented exponents that the genre, one of the great inventions of the Dutch Golden Age, was brought to this country.

The Van de Veldes were royally received in 1673, given palatial studio space at the Queen's House in Greenwich, which had been built by Inigo Jones for James I's wife, Anne of Denmark, at beginning of the century. The emigrants were comfortably housed with their families in nearby Easteny Street by the Thames. Charles II granted the artists an annuity of £100 with a further £50 contributed by his brother James, the Duke of York, while they were to receive additional payments for any work they produced.

The Queen's House is now the venue for a fascinating exhibition, 'The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, Art and the Sea', curated by Alison Goudie, for which the artists' studio on the ground floor has been partially reconstructed. There is also a brilliantly researched, lavishly illustrated and eminently readable book, 'Van de Veldes & Son: Marine Painters' by Remmelt Daalder.

Willem van de Velde the Elder was born the son of a bargemaster in Leiden in Flanders, probably in 1611. His family's extensive connections with bargees and sailors would have enabled him to familiarize himself early with the ways of the sea. He was clearly naturally gifted as a draughtsman, since there is no evidence he was ever formally trained. He married Judick van Leeuwen in 1632 and their son Willem (the Younger) was born two years later. By the time Willem acquired a brother Adriaen (who was to become a successful landscape painter) in 1636, the family had moved to Amsterdam, by far the most important centre for marine painters, where Van de Velde the Elder launched himself on his new artistic career.

'Pen painting', using pens and brushes, was already an established technique, but Van de Velde the Elder brought it to new heights of perfection and was the first to apply it to marine art. The medium was ideal for rendering accurately the details of rigging and elaborate Baroque ships' carvings. During the 1640s he created a niche for himself in the market by producing these high-quality artworks on vellum and board, each of which could take weeks, even months to execute. They fetched high prices and, lightly varnished, could be hung on a wall like paintings. Meanwhile, he got to know the leading marine artist Simon de Vlieger and apprenticed his son to him to learn how to paint in oils. By the time of his marriage in 1652 young Willem was a partner in the family studio, which marketed their various wares, ranging from expensive pen paintings to small oils at affordable prices, under the single trademark signature: W.V.V.

The Anglo-Dutch Wars between 1652 and 1674 opened up new opportunities for Willem the Elder, when he was recruited into the 'service of the State' to sail with the Dutch fleet and record naval battles. He was provided with a fast, light galliot, whose captain was under his orders 'to go ahead, astern, or with the fleet, or in such a manner as he shall deem expedient for the drawings he is to make.' Willem proved a daring war reporter, never afraid to take his vessel into the thick of the action to achieve the most accurate visual account of battle. One famous Admiral, Van Wassenaer van Obdam, was astonished 'that someone dared come so close to danger out of love of art.' Willem was also fortunate that whenever he joined a fleet a major battle almost invariably ensued.

Willem's drawings from the front line were not only of interest to the Dutch Admiralties, but provided a mass of material for the Van de Velde studio to market as pen drawings and oils for admirals, captains, seamen and the wider public. This system was still very much in operation when the artists went to serve Charles II, the Elder to make 'draughts at sea fights' and the Younger to put 'the draughts of sea fights into colour.'

Not only was Willem an audacious mariner at sea, he also conformed to the sailor's proverbial customs on land. His mistake was rather than having a girl in every port, he had in addition to his angry wife, Judick, two girls in his home port of Amsterdam, both of whom became pregnant by him - the very public fallout from all this being recorded for posterity in various eyewitness accounts. There was also rumoured to be third mistress in Rotterdam. Having been thrown out by his wife, Willem took lodgings, where he was visited by yet another paramour, with whom he partook of 'wine, beer, cakes and the like' - evoking visions of contemporary Dutch genre paintings of swaggering, moustachioed, officers being entertained by saucy wenches with generous décoltées.

Willem the Younger also had marital problems when his first bride turned out to be a sharp-tongued, promiscuous termagant. After she had been impregnated by another man, he managed to divorce her and remarried a more suitable partner in 1656. Willem the Elder eventually managed to persuade his wife to take him back. However, respectability was highly valued in Dutch society and the family's marital scandals could well have cost them the patronage of non-naval institutions and more morally censorious buyers. Indeed, this may have been a factor in prompting the Van de Veldes' departure for England.

The first major commission entrusted to Van de Velde the Elder on their arrival in England were designs for a tapestry of the Battle of Solebay off the coast of Suffolk on the 7 June 1672, which the artist had witnessed close-up, from the Dutch side. The King's brother James, Duke of York, as Lord High Admiral was also there and contributed a sketch of the English order of battle. Although the flagship, The Royal James, was destroyed by Dutch fireships with the loss of nearly all on board and the vice-Admiral the Earl of Sandwich drowned, the engagement was deemed an heroic victory (if, in reality, a Pyrrhic one). Solebay was the first of a dozen 'Sea Fights' designed by Willem the Elder and woven at Mortlake. One of the six copies of Solebay has just been expertly restored and returned to the Queen's House.

Now sailing with the English, Van de Velde the Elder witnessed two battles off the coast of Zeeland in 1673, but these were to be his last. Charles clearly thought he was too precious an asset to be put in the line of fire again. But the Van de Veldes studio never lacked royal commissions to memorialize more peaceful maritime occasions thereafter. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and Mary come to the throne, marked the end of the Van de Veldes' career as court artists.

Nonetheless, they then moved from Greenwich to Sackfield Street off Piccadilly and established a new studio, which continued to thrive in the burgeoning new English art market until the deaths of father (1693) and son (1707). Both were buried at St. James's Church on Piccadilly.

A decade after the death of Van de Velde the Younger an old Thames-waterman recalled how he 'had often taken him out in his boat up and down the River, to study the appearances of the sky in all kinds of weather, fair and foul'. The artist, he said, called these expeditions, 'in his Dutch manner of speaking, going a skoying.'

The influence of the Van de Veldes on art in Britain went far beyond the realm of genre painting. Willem the Younger, for example, found a ready market for his dramatic oils of gale-blown vessels on heaving, tempestuous seas and it was a print of just such an image, 'A Three-Masted Ship Breasting a High Wave', that supposedly led to Turner's declaration, 'This made me a painter.'

The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, Art and the Sea, Queen's House, Greenwich: 2 March 2023 - 14 January 2024

Van de Veldes & Son: Marine Painters by Remmelt Daalder, Primavera Pers, Leiden

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024