A fleet of East Indiamen at sea

(Updated, February 2023) This painting has the alternative title 'Ships of the East India Company at Sea' but was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 as 'The Hindostan, G. Millett, commander, and senior officer of eighteen sail of East Indiamen, with the signal to wear, sternmost and leewardmost ships first'. (That is, for the fleet to alter course in the sequence indicated, with the wind astern.) It is believed to represent the convoy under George Millett, as commodore, during their return voyage from China early in 1802. The 'Hindostan', in the centre, was a large East Indiaman of 1248 tons, built in 1796 to replace a previous vessel of the same name that had been sold to the Navy. The new 'Hindostan' undertook three voyages in the service of the Company, the last being the one illustrated. On 11 January 1803, at the start of a fourth voyage, she was lost during a heavy gale on Margate Sands with up to thirty of her crew. Eleven of the other vessels in the convoy depicted here are known to have reached their moorings in England between 11 and 14 July 1802: the 'Lord Hawkesbury', 'Worcester', 'Boddam', 'Fort William', 'Airly Castle', 'Lord Duncan', 'Ocean', 'Henry Addington', 'Carnatic', 'Hope' and 'Windham'. The other ships have not been identified but are also presumed to have done so.

Pocock placed considerable importance on accuracy and he referred to annotated drawings and sketch plans in the production of his oil paintings. He was born and brought up in Bristol and went to sea at the age of seventeen, rising to be the master of several merchant vessels. Although he only took up painting as a profession in his early forties, he became extremely successful, receiving commissions from naval commanders anxious to have accurate portrayals of actions and ships. By the age of eighty Pocock had recorded nearly forty years of maritime history, demonstrating a meticulous understanding of shipping and rigging with close attention to detail. The painting is signed and dated 1803.

Another version of the same size, also signed and dated 1803, was lot 49 in Bonham's (London) Marine Sale, 25 October 2022 and was previously sold at Bearne's, Torquay, on 26 October 1994. This has slight differences in the positioning of ships at the edges of the composition (and four rather than five at right) as well as in the disposition of a few sails. These show it represents a moment very slightly before what is seen in the Museum version. Apart from other slight differences in the shape of the clouds, and even less in the sea, it is otherwise the same. This raises a doubt about which of them was that shown at the RA, though the NMM version is a little more satisfactory in its greater compositional focus on the 'Hindostan' from the larger central light area created by showing its two foresails fully set.

George Millett, commander of the 'Hindostan' was born in Helston, Cornwall in 1762. Both paintings probably show his last voyage as an East India captain and in late 1804 he unsuccessfully sought to become a Director of the East India Company. He was elected one from January 1806 but later resigned until re-elected in April 1809. When his term ended by rotation in April 1813 he did not stand again for health reasons and died at Wanstead in 1816.

Object Details

ID: BHC1097
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Pocock, Nicholas
Date made: 1803
Exhibition: Time and Longitude
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Frame: 830 mm x 1130 mm x 120 mm; Painting: 608 x 923 mm; Overall: 22 kg

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