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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TEXT: SIMON COPPOCK