Command flag, Admiral of the Fleet, RN (before 1801) (AAA0730)
The collections I look after, as the NMM’s Curator of Antiquities, include over 1000 flags. Amongst the most important, if not the most important is Earl Howe’s command flag at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1 June 1794. This is a complete example of an 18th- century Union Jack without the red diagonal cross of St Patrick added after 1801.
It’s a very rare survival, although there are parts of captured 17th- century British flags preserved in the Netherlands. Seeing it fully unrolled is quite an experience, because of its size and the fact that it is clearly painstakingly hand-made and so different from machine-manufactured modern flags.
Unfurling the command flag on the floor of the Queen’s House
Since 1977 the flag had been on loan to the museum from the family of Lieutenant William Burgh who had saved it as a souvenir of an action in which he personally took part. Its picture appeared in several publications including Timothy Wilson’s Flags at Sea and it was the star of the TV documentary What the Stuarts did for us. This sea-going ancestor of our national flag was a must-have. If the museum was going to purchase it, timing was important given the fluctuating demands upon a tight acquisition budget. We finally secured it in the face of well-funded competition from North America where there is considerable interest in historic flags. It was felt to be too important to leave the country.
In the news: ‘Oldest Union command flag revealed’, Guardian Unlimited
Would you like to know more about the unfurling of the command flag? If so, click here
View command flag, Admiral of the Fleet, RN (before 1801) in Collections Online.
‘The wreck of the Halsewell, Indiaman, 1786′ by Thomas Stothard (ZBA4537)
The loss of the East Indiaman Halsewell under the cliffs at Seacombe, Dorset, is a horrific and well-known story. Outward-bound with troops for India, she was caught in a winter Channel storm, sprang a leak and became unmanageable, and was driven ashore in darkness at about 02.00 in the morning of 6 January 1786. Over a 100 people drowned, most when the ship broke up within two hours striking. About 130 men managed to reach a ledge in the cliff, but only around 70 managed to hold on and be hauled up by local people at daybreak. Those lost included Captain Richard Pierce who, rather than try and save himself, stayed in the ship’s roundhouse (cabin) with his daughters Eliza and Mary Anne, his two nieces and the other lady passengers: they all died, as did Pierce’s nephew, the ship’s first officer. The two senior survivors were the second and third mates, Henry Meriton and John Rogers, who quickly published an account of the disaster, which was widely reported and also prompted many pictures and prints. Most showed the stormy wreck but a very unusual one, suggesting its terrors by implication, was of the scene in the listing cabin with Pierce comforting his daughters, and Meriton and Rogers on the left about to make their escape. This was engraved by Edmund Scott, based on a painting by Thomas Stothard RA (1755-1834) and, though undated, probably appeared shortly afterwards.
In autumn 2007, Stothard’s small oil painting of the subject unexpectedly resurfaced. Dropping en passant into Abbott & Holder’s gallery in London I saw it in their office, as yet unidentified as to subject and artist. I did not know either but had a vague suspicion what the subject might be, easily confirmed once back at Greenwich. So I phoned Philip Athill of Abbott & Holder, told him that I knew and asked if he would suggest a price on that basis. He was happy not to have to chase it further himself and made us a good offer, which we were very glad to accept. It’s all the more interesting because any sort of cabin scene is unusual and at only 305 x 355 mm – roughly the same as the print – it’s a strong painting for its size. Stothard might have done a larger version, with this one either as a preliminary study or a small copy for easier engraving, both are fairly common. But there’s no obvious record of another, so in this case it’s probably the original. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – the Museum has another small upright oil by Stothard called ‘A sailor’s return in peace’ showing a seaman coming home to his welcoming family. This is also rather sketchy and might be for a larger picture, though none is known. It too was the basis of a more polished print, in this case one of four, with ‘Sailors in a storm’, ‘Sailors in a fight’ and ‘Sailors in port’. All these were published by John Raphael Smith in April 1798 though, rather curiously, the fight and storm ones were mezzotints and the other two were executed in less labour-intensive aquatint. Two paintings alone are not a reliable sample, but it may be that Stothard did not do more developed oil versions but painted the two mentioned here – and perhaps other subjects – simply as loosely handled modellos for prints, with the tightening up evident in the latter being by the engravers. In the case of the ‘Sailor’ series this was the very competent William Ward (1766-1826).
View ‘The wreck of the Halsewell, Indiaman, 1786′ in Collections Online.
This blog will highlight some of the Museum’s recent acquisitions. Usually these objects will also be available on Collections Online or in the new Manuscripts catalogue.
Collecting and Recent Acquisitions at the National Maritime Museum
Collections form the heart of all museums, and active collecting is an important and exciting aspect of the National Maritime Museum’s mission ‘to illustrate the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars’. New material is added every year, on both a large and a small scale. The NMM collections hold over 2.5 million items, making them a huge resource of written, visual and object-based information for those interested in the subjects to which they relate.
Regular additions – collected by gift, purchase or bequest – reflect the wide range of the Museum’s interests and activities. It is always grateful for offers of new items but potential acquisitions have to be carefully considered, to ensure that they meet fairly strict criteria of significance and condition, and do not create unnecessary duplications. You can get more information from the Museum’s full current Collecting Policy.
New material helps the Museum to make greater sense of its existing collections and to enhance its public displays. It also extends the range of the Museum’s research and educational activities, and supports the projects and interests of other users at all levels. Active collecting therefore remains a vital and ongoing part of the Museum’s work.
This is the National Maritime Museum’s collections blog (it’s not the collections catalogue if that’s what you’re looking for).
The blog provides a way of us (Museum staff involved with collections) highlighting objects and aspects of our collections that we like.
These can be new acquisitions, conservation work or highlights from curators. Also, it is a good way of keeping up with new additions to Collections Online. You can make sure you do this by subscribing to the blog using the text box on the right.