History’s first draft: the art of the van de Veldes

The exhibition 'The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, art and the sea' continues at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, until 14 January 2024.

In 1672, perhaps ’73, two Dutchmen arrived in London. It was not, perhaps, the smartest time to be in the English capital – bang in the middle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War – but they came at the behest of King Charles II. This father and son, who shared the name Willem van de Velde and the trade of artist, would together set the standard for British maritime painting, inspiring followers who are now much better-known – not least the man many regard as the greatest of all maritime painters: J M W Turner.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Willem Van de Velden, Ships Draughtsman to King Charles II, early 1670s
The son of a Flemish sea captain, Willem van de Velde was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1611. A self-taught draughtsman, his reputation was such that when Cosimo de’ Medici, future Grand Duke of Tuscany, came to the Netherlands in 1667, he visited only Rembrandt and van de Velde. This print was made by Gerard Sibelius from Kneller’s now-lost portrait of van de Velde, painted at around the time he settled in England.

Willem van de Velde the Elder had made his name as, almost, a photojournalist before the fact. Known for the quality of his draughtsmanship, he would – from as early as the 1640s, though his role was made official in 1653 – sail out with the Dutch fleet to capture at first-hand manoeuvres and battles. Bringing back to shore his meticulous sketches, made on unusually lengthy pieces of paper, he would then use them as the foundation for the penschilderij (‘pen paintings’) on which his reputation was built. Using pen and ink on lead-white canvases, these works were highly detailed, allowing van de Velde to show off his maritime knowledge while conjuring elaborate effects of light and shadow, weather and waves.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Willem Van de Velde the Younger, 1633-1707,
1707: Unlike his father, Willem van de Velde the Younger was a trained artist, learning from marine painter Simon de Vlieger in Weesp, near Amsterdam. Born in Leiden in 1633, his father’s youngest legitimate son, he began work in his father’s studio in Amsterdam in 1652. His initial output of ships in calm settings changed, once he moved to England, to canvases of battles and storms. This print is by John Smith.

While the father’s renown was based on his accuracy in recording ships and their doings, his youngest son – Willem van de Velde the Younger – was recognised as a superb painter. Where the Elder van de Velde might picture in exquisite detail the wooden balustrades of a Dutch flagship, or everyday life ashore, the Younger van de Velde would often be unconcerned even about capturing a specific event. In such paintings as An English Ship in Action with Barbary Vessels (1678) or Two English Ships Wrecked in a Storm on a Rocky Coast (c.1700), he sought rather to present an atmosphere, a moment of drama, or the quality of light just as a storm broke.

Willem Van de Velde the Elder, the Battle of Scheveningen, 10 August 1653
1655: This ‘pen painting’ depicts the last battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch lost 15 ships after Lieutenant-Admiral Maerten Tromp was killed by a sharpshooter, but claimed victory, since they’d broken the British blockade. Van de Velde highlights the sinking of HMS Andrew, suggesting this was a Dutch commission – it may have belonged to Tromp’s son. In foreground to the left, on the starboard side of the boat with raised leeboards, van de Velde has depicted himself: in a wide-brimmed hat, busily drawing.
Willem Van de Velde the Elder, The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672,
c.1672: The huge Solebay Tapestry (5.6m wide and weighing more than 36kg) was made by Thomas Poyntz from van de Velde the Elder’s picture of the opening battle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674). Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter attacked the Anglo-French fleet off Southwold, sinking the Royal James with a fireship – resulting in the death of the Earl of Sandwich. It was the last naval battle in which the future English king James II took part.
Willem Van de Velde the Younger and Dominic Serres the Elder, Charles II’s visit to the French and English Fleets at the Nore, 6 June 1672, c.1675

Under Charles’ patronage – from 1674 he provided them with the same salary as Sir Peter Lely, who was the king’s ‘Principal Painter’ – the van de Veldes brought their different skills together to form a powerful artistic team. Over two decades, working from their studio in the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the Elder would continue to produce sketches from life, while the Younger was responsible ‘for putting the said Draughts into Colours’ using his favoured oil paints – work he continued even after his father’s death in 1693. The fruits of their labours are displayed, along with contemporary work that sets the van de Veldes in context, in the new exhibition The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, art and the sea at, naturally enough, the Queen’s House.

Willem Van de Velde the Younger, A Royal Visit to the Fleet in the Thames Estuary, 1672,
1696: In the months after Solebay, the English fleet underwent extensive repairs in the Thames. Charles II visited to observe progress under his brother James, who was Lord High Admiral at the time, but would shortly be forced to relinquish his role as a result of the anti-Catholic Test Act (1673). The drawing is surely a preparatory sketch for the painting, but an inscription on the back claims it was instead drawn by Dominic Serres in 1785. Research suggests van de Velde the Younger was indeed responsible for the original, which had been extensively repaired – notably in the sky section – by Serres. The painting derived from that sketch is one of van de Velde the Younger’s largest, and uses a characteristic low viewpoint that helps place the viewer in the picture right at sea level.
J M W Turner, Smack on the Shore, Drying Sails, mid-1790s Beyond the significance of their art as an historical record, the van de Veldes had far-reaching aesthetic influence. Turner – perhaps most famous for his ghostly The Fighting Temeraire of 1839 – was a particular enthusiast for their work, with his own private collection of their drawings. This pencil and wash depiction of a fishing boat perhaps most recalls the van der Veldes’ tranquil early depictions of everyday life on the Dutch coast.

The exhibition The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, art and the sea continues at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, until 14 January 2024. The Queen’s House is open 10am-5pm daily and entry is free (although donations are appreciated).
For more information, call 020 8858 4422 or visit www.rmg.co.uk/van-de-velde.