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Picturing the 18th-century port

Illustrating London's commercial pre-eminence
Painting the Thames
Blackwall and the lower Thames
The Cleveley family
The working river in art
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The Cleveley family

Deptford and the Cleveleys

The Royal Caroline.
View full size imageThe Royal Caroline by John Cleveley the elder. © NMM

Most prominent among the Thames group of artists were members of a single family, the Cleveleys. They lived in Deptford and worked in the shipyard, sometimes as caulkers or in other shipyard professions.

John Cleveley the elder, and father of this family of painters, was born and died in Southwark, London. He was a shipwright by profession and did not become a professional painter until the late 1740s.

Cleveley the elder lived and worked in part of the Royal Dockyard, in Deptford, which he frequently included in his paintings. Like Holman, his paintings combined topographical accuracy and architectural detail with considerable knowledge of shipbuilding.

'Sixth rate on the stocks'

A sixth-rate on the stocks.
View full size imageA sixth-rate on the stocks. © NMM

His Sixth rate on the stocks, of 1758, is a typically detailed representation of a Thames shipyard, perhaps at Rotherhithe. The ship in the foreground ready for launching is a 24-gun sloop of war, and another ship in dry dock to the left is under repair. To the right, tree trunks are piled ready for use for shipbuilding.

Again, the artist’s concern is to emphasize the thriving business of the scene. As with many other pictures of docks, however, it is also meant to commemorate a particular event, the launch of a ship. This is a frequent feature of Cleveley’s paintings, presumably done for the shipwrights involved.

The 'St Alban's'

St Albans Floated out at Deptford, 1747
View full size imageSt Albans floated out at Deptford, 1747. © NMM

Cleveley the elder’s The St Albans floated out of Deptford, painted in 1747, shows the St Albans, a 60-gun man-of-war being floated out at the Royal Dockyard, Deptford in that year.

The building on the left, with a woman wearing an apron standing in the doorway, is the master shipwright’s house, built in 1708. On the right is the Great Storehouse: Deptford had become the headquarters of naval victualling and supply in 1742. 

The artist has included a host of details and shipping along the quayside, together with a variety of figures specifically positioned to draw attention to shipping and other associated activities.

The 'Royal George' at Deptford

The Royal George at Deptford showing the launch of the Cambridge.
View full size imageThe Royal George at Deptford showing the launch of the Cambridge. © NMM

On the other hand, The Royal George at Deptford by Cleveley the elder combines in a commemorative composition two ships that could never have been together at the same time!

It shows the launch of the Cambridge at the Royal Dockyard, Deptford in 1755, with the Royal George anchored in the river on the far right, fully rigged. The Royal George, however, was launched at Woolwich Dockyard in 1756, and was too large to have been anchored as far upstream as Deptford.

Once again, the Great Storehouse and the master shipwright’s house are included in the scene, as they are in Cleveley the elder’s The Buckingham on the stocks at Deptford, of 1752. That picture commemorated the launch of the Buckingham at Deptford in the previous year.

The Buckingham on the stocks at Deptford.
View full size imageThe Buckingham on the stocks at Deptford. © NMM

The figure in the foreground sketching the scene may be a self-portrait of the artist. The very precisely treated and similar subject matter of these pictures suggest they were made for patrons in the dockyard community.

The rise of exhibiting societies from 1760 onwards allowed artists to exhibit their works to a wider audience. Many of them could be related to more general Thames and shipping scenes, such as those by Scott. But pictures such as Cleveley's were clearly aimed at a narrow group of specialist viewers.

John Cleveley the younger and Robert Cleveley

A view of His Majesty's Dock Yard at Chatham in the County of Kent, on the River Medway
View full size imageChatham Dockyard. © NMM

Two of John Cleveley the elder’s sons were artists, John Cleveley the younger and Robert Cleveley. Though they also had been brought up and worked in the dockyards, and also painted scenes of Deptford, their work addressed a much wider audience.

The brothers exhibited at the Royal Academy, and treated a wider range of imagery, including subjects taken from voyages of discovery, such as those by Captain Cook.

Like his father, John Cleveley the younger also depicted the Royal Dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich and Chatham, as in the hand-coloured print A view of His Majesty’s dockyard at Chatham. This again shows a naval ship being floated out, and in many works the son followed his father’s example in producing paintings commemorating launches.

Launch of HMS Alexander at Deptford in 1778.
View full size imageLaunch of HMS Alexander at Deptford in 1778. © NMM

A fine example is The launch of HMS Alexander at Deptford in 1778, in which the festive celebrations are emphasized through the inclusion of flags and pennants and the representation of crowds of spectators on the quayside and in boats the water.

However, the artist has abandoned his father’s stiff, documentary style in favour of a more open, atmospheric view. With its low horizon the work recalls Dutch 17th-century marine painting.

John Cleveley the younger also treated a much wider range of subjects, and addressed a wider audience through making pictures for reproduction in prints.

John Cleveley the younger and Captain Cook

HMS Resolution and Discovery at Moorea.
View full size imageHMS Resolution and Discovery at Moorea. © NMM

Through his training under the artist Paul Sandby at Woolwich, John was engaged to produce engravings after drawings made on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas (1772-75).

Later, through their brother James, who worked as carpenter on board the Resolution on Cook’s third voyage (1776-80), both John and his twin brother Robert had access to some of the artwork produced on it.

John had not travelled on either expedition himself, but he quickly attempted to capitalize on the artistic opportunities presented by ready market for South Seas images. He produced HMS Resolution and Discovery at Moorea and other similar views for the print market, including one of the death of Cook at Hawaii.

Robert Cleveley and the Thames

Shipping at Deptford.
View full size imageShipping at Deptford. © NMM

Robert Cleveley also produced views of shipping and the Thames at Deptford, in works such as Shipping at Deptford. Here the view is down river towards Greenwich Hospital, which can be seen in the distance.

Again, it celebrates the launch of a warship, but the hay barge in the foreground permits a contrast between the pageantry of such an event and the ordinary traffic on the river.

A view of Botany Bay.
View full size imageA View of Botany Bay.
Yet Robert Cleveley, too, depicted more exotic subjects, producing one of the earliest views of Australia, A view of Botany Bay. This print was published in 1789, just one year after the First Fleet transported the first convicts to Australia.


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Find out more
Fact fileJohn Cleveley
A marine painter
GalleriesDeptford Royal Dockyard collection
StoriesDeptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards
The rise and decline of Henry VIII's Dockyards
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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