Blackwall Yard from the Thames

(Updated February 2015) A view of Blackwall yard, on the north bank of the Thames, east of Greenwich, which was used for building of ships for the Royal Navy and the East India Company from the beginning of the 17th century. The yard flourished under the management of John Perry at the end of the 18th century and later under the Greens, who built the 'Blackwall frigates'.

On the left of the picture, the ship shown in starboard broadside is being launched. It is thought to be the fifth rate, 'Adventure', 44 guns, wearing (from bow to stern) a Union jack, the Admiralty flag, a royal standard, a Union flag and a white ensign. 'Adventure' was launched on 19 July 1784 and to her right, in the river, a group of small boats centres round what is probably the barge of the Navy Board, with its officers watching the event. The ship on the extreme left, with a covered barge under its bow, is probably the 'Venerable', 74 guns, which had been launched in April 1784. Of the five ships on the stocks in the right-hand half of the picture, the first and third from the right are merchantmen: the other three are 74-gun naval two-deckers that Perry built under contract. They have been identified, probably in this order, left to right, based on launch date as the 'Theseus' (September 1786, and here still under construction), the 'Victorious' (with flagmasts already fitted for her launch in April 1785) and the 'Hannibal' (April 1786). Navy Board contracts included provision for launching of completed ships to be considerably delayed if they were not immediately required.

Ships had been built at Blackwall since the Middle Ages but it was when it became the East India Company's yard in the early years of the 17th century that it expanded to be the premier private yard in the country. By the time this picture was painted, Blackwall was the biggest private yard in the world. The year 1784 was a high point in its history, when John Perry had three 74s, two 44s, an East Indiaman and a West Indiaman on the stocks. At that time there was a revival of trade and prosperity after the damaging effects of the War of American Independence.

In the background the shipyard can be glimpsed to the left and right, with houses, dockyard buildings and piles of logs visible. Just left of centre is Blackwall Yard House (1612-1873), the home of Perry and later the Greens. In the foreground there are a variety of small craft. On the left a group of people are being rowed in a boat. Several women wearing hats are seated and a man wearing a blue jacket and a wig stands to look at the launch. The ship ('Venerable') in the foreground on the left is also lined with sailors looking at the launch.

Holman was born in Ramsgate, son of a master mariner, and was baptized on 14 November 1729 at St Laurence-in-Thanet. He exhibited at the Free Society and later at the Royal Academy from addresses in Shadwell and Wapping, near the Thames, which was the London base of various Ramsgate shipping families. He was thoroughly acquainted with ships and ship-building and was the early master of Thomas Luny, another well-known marine artist. This painting, one of his last works, is signed and dated, lower left, 'F.Holman 1784'. It was probably painted too late to be the picture exhibited at the Royal Academy that year as 'A Shipyard on the Thames' but there is another from a similar viewpoint painted earlier in the year which shows the ‘Venerable’ just prior to her launch in April (BHC1869) which may be by Holman, who died on 29 November in Shadwell aged 55, administration of his will being granted to his widow, Jane (nee Maxted, from a Thanet family), on 18 December. She was his second wife, (m. May 1781) his first, Elizabeth, and all three of their children having by then died. His residuary legatees were siblings and their children. They included his younger brother Captain John Holman (1733-1816), who had carried on the family profession in Ramsgate - where Francis was buried in the Maxted family vault at St Laurence's on 4 December. Two of his nieces by sisters are also mentioned, one wife of a shipwright and the other of another 'mariner', both living close to him in Shadwell.

Object Details

ID: BHC1866
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Atlantic Gallery
Creator: Holman, Francis
Places: Blackwall
Date made: 1784
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Caird Collection
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 940 mm x 2020 mm; Frame: 1167 mm x 2260 mm x 125 mm; Weight: 65.4kg

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