Each month, the NMM will be showcasing an object from the collection of the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This month’s object is a fascinating broadsheet from the Museum’s collection of prints and drawings which comprises more than 60,000 items.
‘Perfect representation and description of an engagement between de Ruyter and Albemarle during the Four Days’ Battle, 1-4 June 1666′ by Cornelis Grave [engraver] (PAH7599)
In June, ‘Turmoil and Tranquillity’ opens in the Queen’s House. The exhibition will explore the sea through the eyes of Dutch and Flemish masters 1550-1700. There is, though, another work on display at NMM from this period that constantly fascinates me.
On display in the ‘Art and the Sea’ galleries you will find a broadsheet from 1666 which is attributed to an anonymous Dutch engraver and is boastfully titled ‘Perfect representation and description of an engagement between de Ruyter and Albemarle during the Four Days’ Battle, 1-4 June 1666′. Just like contemporary newspapers, the broadsheet has a headline, an image and a story which sets out to communicate information to those with a stake and interest in commerce, politics and power. Whilst, the image predates photography as we understand it today – that came some two centuries later – here we have a representation of an actual event in progress. Ships in full sail stretch back to the horizon, rescue boats make their escape, some vessels can be seen sinking beneath the waves, and plumes of smoke are interwoven into a sky punctuated by clouds. It is as if we, as viewers, are sitting right in the centre of the battle.
The title of this etching makes great claims – can it really be a ‘perfect representation’ of the event? Whilst this print uses the grammar that we associate with photography, it is an artist’s impression of the event rather than an image showing the reality of it. When photography was first developed it was described as the pencil of nature and regarded as capable of capturing a ‘truth’. Nowadays, we are wise to such claims of a perfect description – just like this etching, all representations and descriptions are partial and constructed. Today, this work has so much relevance in spite of its technology and depiction of another time. Like so many items in the National Maritime Museum’s collection, it communicates not just a representation of the world around us but, also, asks questions of how we construct and understand our place in it – a concern that constantly sits in the present.