The Wreck of the East Indiaman 'Dutton' in Plymouth Sound, 26 January 1796

(Updated, March 2015) The painting interprets an event from the life of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth. He lived in Devon, as did Luny from 1807 when he moved from London to Teignmouth. Luny subsequently - well into the 1830s - painted a number of works illustrating incidents in Pellew's career, and other subjects, both for him and other members of his family.

The 'Dutton' was built on the Thames in 1781 and chartered by the East India Company. It was bound for the West Indies with troops on board when it was wrecked in Plymouth Sound during a gale on 26 January 1796. At the time Pellew was stationed at Falmouth, commanding a squadron of frigates. He was in Plymouth when this incident occurred and, being a powerful man, himself swam out with a line to the grounded ship. This allowed breeches buoys to be rigged by which all but four of the 600 on board were saved under his oversight. Luny's first-hand knowledge of the sea and ships enabled him to paint this type of subject, but in this case the composition is closely based on a print by the former Bristol sea captain and marine artist, Nicholas Pocock, published shortly after the incident in 1796 (see PAH8439).

The ship is depicted with its masts gone, close to the shore to which it is connected by the rescue lines being held in tension by a well-organized crowd, with figures in transit from ship to shore along them. The carved figurehead at the bow of the ship appears ghostly, while the waves crash over the deck. Figures are still on deck awaiting rescue, with the officer prominent in the blue uniform coat on the ship's poop probably intended as Pellew. There are figures still in the water holding onto bits of wreckage as they try to reach land and others are depicted lying exhausted on the rocks. More debris from the ship floats in the water to the right. The outline of a fort rises on the left and the coastline of Devon is silhouetted in the distance, through the driving rain. The painting creates an atmosphere of high drama, with dark clouds, the wind, heavy waves and people gesticulating from the shore. The artist has signed the work 'T Luny 1821' on the rocks to the left. This needs explanation, since while Luny painted seven recorded versions of the composition the only one which matches the dimensions of this example was the one he sold in September 1834 to Captain the Hon. Fleetwood Pellew, son of (by then) Lord Exmouth. Exmouth himself had bought the second of the first two that Luny sold in October and November 1821 but both these were smaller, Exmouth's measuring 24 x 30 in (62 x 77 cm). The most likely explanation is that Luny painted this large one in 1821 and retained is as a master version until selling it in 1834. Another smaller and greyer version of the same image, but with staffage closer to Pocock's print, is in the Plymouth city collection and is reported to measure 62 x 94 cm. However, although this bears a brief descriptive inscription, lower left, including 'N. Pocock pinxit 1811' it is not the original for Pocock's 1796 plate. Its appearance also suggests it is more likely to be by Luny, though its width does not match the 86 cm which is the closest dimension of those recorded in his 1807-37 list of works, patrons, sizes and prices (of which the NMM has a copy). Another version (24 x 34 ins/ 62 x 86 cm) from a slightly higher viewpoint, with the ship rather smaller and the fortification to left larger, was sold at auction by Charles Miller Ltd, London, on 26 October 2011: based on size, this is likely to have been either one painted for Albany Saville of Okehampton in November 1830 or for a Mr Phipps in October 1832.

Object Details

ID: BHC3298
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Luny, Thomas
Vessels: Dutton (1781)
Date made: 1821
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 770 x 1120 mm; Frame: 902 mm x 1252 mm x 60 mm

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