The Boarding & Taking of the American Frigate CHESAPEAKE by H.M. FrIgate SHANNON 1813 (1816) Artist: William Heath

Overview

There are four works depicting this sea battle during the War of 1812 included in the purchases made from the Winkworth Collection of early Canadiana in 2015 and first displayed at AGNS in Return to Nova Scotia, the 2016-2017 AGNS show introducing the Winkworth purchases. A quick search online reveals the existence of a number of others. Why are there so many paintings of this event—and what was the market or purpose of such paintings?  Who bought them, and why? Furthermore, this picture is significantly unlike the other three. How is it different, and what does the difference reveal about how what the artist wants to reveal about the battle?  

Introduction

Heath’s painting, a watercolor with ink highlights, depicts a key event in British naval history, a sea battle just outside of Boston Harbor in 1813 in which the British HMS Shannon captured the American USS Chesapeake during what is known as the War of 1812. While the history the picture depicts and invites viewers to consider is interesting and significant, the fact that an artist chose to make such a picture and that there was an audience for it and for pictures of military and naval battles generally deserves exploration.  

Throughout his career, Heath specialized in painting what was newsworthy—the significant events of the day.  In his early years, he specialized in military and naval subjects of the sort that this Chesapeake picture represents. But he is best known for his later work as a caricaturist, producing comic images for cheaply-purchased journals.  His caricatures reveal how both public and private figures depart from social and moral ideals by offering exaggerated versions of them that highlight their hypocrisy or lack of good sense. While both these kinds of pictures are forms of journalism, commentary on what’s current, they clearly have different purposes. The caricatures are satirical in intent, intended to ridicule his subjects in order to make readers question their behaviour. The military pictures are more like straightforward journalism: they show viewers what happened on important occasions with no particular comic intent. Indeed, they tend to celebrate their subjects—at least the Englishmen among them—rather than make fun of them. They are more like propaganda than satire.

But which of the two categories does the Cheaspeake picture fit into? At first glance, it is clearly journalistic, a documentary kind of art that memorializes and celebrates the event it depicts much as newspapers and TV news broadcasts have come to do in later times. But a closer look might reveal some comic or even satiric elements. Is it possible for one picture to both celebrate the events it depicts and offer a comic view of them? If it were, what might be the overall effect of that strange combination? 

Questions/ Discussion Points

Why might people have painted pictures of things like naval battles?  What would be the function or purpose of such pictures?

What’s special or unique about this picture?  How is it different from other depictions of battles, like the ones you can see elsewhere in the gallery?  What does the artist seem to be wanting to tell you about the event he’s depicting that might be different from what the other artists want to tell you?  (Note close focus on people instead of on the ships, what it’s like to be in a battle, etc.—not focused on the overall scope of the action (like a Cinemascope movie with thousands of extras) but on what it’s like to be in the action close up.)

What attitudes might the artists be implying towards the people in the picture? Are there good guys and bad guys? How can you tell which is which? And what does the picture tell us about how to think about them (consider facial expressions, etc.)

Is it a journalistic document, or a satiric caricature?  Does it celebrate its subject or ridicule it?

Discussion

As a British artist depicting a British victory, Heath’s intentions are most clearly celebratory.  It’s possible to imagine how comic elements might not be out of place in a more journalistic image if we consider the possible purpose and intended audience of such pictures. It seems to have a lot to do with patriotism—with declaring pride in the might of the British navy and the overall glory of England and being English. Pictures like Heath’s frequently became the basis of prints, available relatively inexpensively, so that lots of people could declare their national pride and celebrate a significant British victory by memorializing it on the walls of their homes.

It’s important, however, to remember that pictures like this one are not actually documentary in nature—not actually showing what really happened. It would be impossible for them to do so, for there were no cameras around yet, and in any case, anyone actually on the ship as a witness to the events would be too buy avoiding blades to make a picture. In any case, the angle from which Heath depicts the battle places a viewer at some distance away from and looking down on the action, somehow suspended over the sea (or possibly still on board the Shannon)? It offers a view no one there could have seen. So it is the event as the artist imagined it, and what he imagines, the choices he makes about colour and composition and focus, inevitably implies a specific individual attitude toward it.

 Here, I think, the attitude is primarily celebratory—confirming the bravery and manliness of the British sailors and the great nation they represent. The composition draws attention to the figure in white trousers in the lower left of the image, framed by beams and ropes and being looked at or pointed towards by many of the other figures; and this sailor’s face looks young, earnest, and eager—the essence of British character and manliness.

But there is also something a little humorous about that angelically innocent face in the midst of pitched battle and apparently not noticing how dangerous or scary it is. Furthermore, the style in which Heath depicts this and many of the other faces is simplified, very close to the barebones cartooning that allows for the exaggerations of satire.

The picture then combines journalism and caricature. Unlike the other images of the battle hung near it in Return to Nova Scotia, it shows the battle up close, inviting us to think of what it would be like to be in the midst of it. But a closer look suggests that there are comic elements in it.  

Some, like the white-trousered sailor’s earnest face, might not have been intended as being all that comical. It’s likely that Heath showed all the combatants with their swords lifted in the air, all more or less in the same position, to establish a rhythmic pattern that both unifies the picture by crested a repeating element in an otherwise chaotic scene and also raises suspenseful expectations: all those lifted swords are just about the descend and create havoc. They imply the violence about to happen without showing it. It’s instructive also that there is no one actually being run through by a sword visible in the picture, nor is there any evidence of wounds or even of blood. The central character’s brilliant white trousers are spotless. But for all the suspense and symmetry, all this does give the picture something of a humorous edge. It’s a fierce battle staged as something like as ballet, and surprisingly sanitary.

More clearly intended as comic is the way in which the face of the American all mirror each other—they all look completely startled in the same wide-eyed way, sharing the same awe about what’s happening to them and the same unmanly weakness in battle that makes them something like figures of fun.

Other artists besides Heath depicted this battle in close-ups of the action on the deck of the Chesapeake. One, identified on the internet only as an old British print (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/012922.html), is more documentary in style than Heath’s, more like journalism than caricature:

Shannon_v_Chesapeake_color

Another image by George Cruikshank, who illustrated the first English translation of the Grimm fairy tales and a number of Dickens’ novels, is clearly a caricature with satiric intent:

The AGNS picture by Heath combines elements of the two. It both celebrates the British seamen and ridicules the American ones. While journalistic in intent, it foreshadows Heath’s later renown as a satirist.  While encouraging national pride, it suggests a not terribly attractive attitude to that nationalistic pride, a triumphal crowing about the nation’s superiority to its enemies.  

A further depiction of the Shannon/Chesapeake encounter is also ascribed to Heath: The Mêlée on the deck of the Chesapeake, Captain Broke receiving his wound:

The outfits of the combatants here are startlingly different from the ones in the other picture.

Pictures like Heath’s frequently became the basis of prints that could be purchased relatively inexpensively, so that lots of people could celebrate a significant British victory by memorializing it on the walls of their homes. It’s interesting, therefore, that a print based on Heath’s image duplicates it accurately except for the shared expressions on the faces of the Americans, which are much more varied:

Bio/ Background Information

We know very little about Heath—he was born in 1790 in Northumbris and died in 1840 in Hampstead.  In 1816, when he produced the Shannon and Chesapeake picture, he would have been in his early twenties—and possibly living in London. There is a theory that he may have been a cavalry officer. In any case, before he settled into a career doing caricatures, he specialized in military subjects:

Marshal Beresford disarming a Polish Lancer, at the Battle of Albuera_May 16th, 1811. London, Oct 1, 1815.

Nelson Wounded in the Battle of the Nile, published 1817.

After 1820, however, the interest in military subjects waned, and Heath turned to satiric caricatures of the current scene. In 1825 or so he left London for Glasgow, possibly to escape debtors, and produced a satirical journal called the Glasgow Looking Glass—later the Northern Looking Glass–in which he caricatured local and national politicians and the eccentricities of the residents of the city.  

A precursor of the long-running satiric magazine Punch, the Looking Glassprinted what some people claim to be the first comic strip—the first to combine pictures with speech balloons.  

The journal came to an end the next year and Heath left Glasgow, perhaps because his satirical depictions of the Glaswegians had annoyed them enough to cause him problems.  Back in London, he produced another Looking Glass, and continued to draw satiric caricatures, sometimes used the pseudonym Paul Pry. 

Heath’s work as a satirist focuses on current events. For instance, he captured the ridiculousness of a crowd of determinedly fashionable women so intent on being seen in the right place and wearing the correctly fashionable hats and gowns that they obscure the view of the paintings in the gallery exhibition they are attending:

As well as making fun of the politicians, hypocrites, and the wide range of other people he found to be foolish, Heath produced a series of science-fiction-like images of how he imagined the future, The March of Intellect:

We know more about Heath’s subject in the Chesapeake watercolor than we do about him. The British had lost its previous war with the American colonies, not to mention those colonies, and earlier in the War of 1812, the Americans had won several single-ship battles; so the capture of the USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon in 1813 was a significant turning point in the war and a matter of great pride for the British—and especially, a return to confidence in the British navy.  It’s also worth noting that after Lord Nelson’s victory over the French in the Battle of Trafalgar, less than a decade earlier, and in the midst of an ongoing war in Europe against Napolean, British pride and patriotism were at a fever pitch , and very much tied up with sea power and naval victories.

In the battle depicted in Heath’s picture,, which took place just outside Boston Harbor, the Chesapeake was captured in less than fifteen minutes, during which time 252 men were killed or wounded. (One of them was the Chesapeake’s captain, James Lawrence, whose last words, “Don’t give up the ship,” became famous.) After the battle, the Shannon towed the Chesapeake to the port it had sailed from, Halifax, under the command of Provo Willis—AGNS owns a portrait of him by Robert Field.

Image file: '1979_18.jpg'

Some decades later, Provo Willis himself produced four paintings of the events of 1813, including one of the ships arriving at Halifax: 

In Halifax, the Shannon’s sailors were imprisoned, and the ship was repaired and taken into service by the Royal Navy. 

The deep significance of these events to Haligonians—and the reason for the inclusion of so many paintings of the incident in Return from Nova Scotia, is revealed by the existence of various monuments and artefacts still visible in Halifax two hundred years later. 

Gravestones for the casualties of Chesapeake(left) and Shannon(right), CFB Halifax, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Cannon from USS Chesapeake(Province House (Nova Scotia)

Cannon from HMS Shannon(Province House (Nova Scotia)

And there’s also a Provo Willis Street.

Heath’s image is done in watercolor and ink on paper. It was included in the collection of early Canadiana put together by Peter Winkworth, a British stockbroker with Canadian roots. In 2002, Winkworth sold 2000 items from the collection to the Canadian National Archives, and after his death in 2005, a further 1200 items were purchased by the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilzation.  After Winkworth’s wife died, what remained was put up for auction at Christie’s in London.  On April 1, 2015, Heath’s depiction of the Chesapeake incident, with an estimated value of GBP 1,000, sold to AGNS and the Nova Scotia Museum for GBP 23,750.   It is now included in the Nova Scotia Museum Marine History Collection.

Activity

First activity: Look closely at the faces in the picture.  Do you notice anything about them?  What kinds of emotions are these men feeling?

Choose one of the men in the picture who is holding a sword and see if you take his pose—stand as he is standing. Now keep the pose and look at each other.  Do you notice anything? (note that the swords are all up in the air.)  Now, I’ll say 3, 2, 1, Go, and on Go, come to life and see what happens.

After they do it;) Why do you think the artist didn’t show what comes next?

Second activity:If other sea-battle pictures are nearby: compare. What’s different or special about this one?  What different aspects of the battle do they focus on? Which one do you think gives you the best sense of what the battle was like?

Conclusion 

Thinking about why a picture like this exists—when and where and why it might have painted–can give you insights into it that might change the way you see it and feel about it.  It’s a good example of how art emerges from and relates to its context, and how knowing something about the context can enrich your experience of it. 

Comparing a work of art with similar ones can help you to become aware of how it differs—in other words, what’s special about it. How is Heath’s picture similar to and different from other caricatures ? How is it similar to and different from other depictions of seas-battles you can find elsewhere in the gallery?


Part of your own context for looking at any picture is where and when you see it, and how it relates to the time you live in and your own personal experience and values. Does the battle Heath depicted still matter to Nova Scotians now?  Why?  When you look at pictures like this one, do you enjoy them most as insights into history, or as works of art that are pleasing or otherwise interesting to look at?  Could someone enjoy a picture like this one without any knowledge of the history it relates to?

References:

“Capture of USS Chesapeake.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capture_of_USS_Chesapeake>

“Glasgow/Northern Looking Glass.” GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS DEPARTMENT Book of the Month.”  <http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/june2005.html>

Gunn,  Ann V. “The rival frigates: “Commemorating the Battle of the Shannon and the Chesapeake.” British Art Journal7.2 (Autumn 2006), 101-114.

“The History of British Cartoons and Caricature – The Rt Hon Lord Baker.”

<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1tH2mVJ3P4>

“Inside the pages of the oldest comic in the world.” <http://theconversation.com/inside-the-pages-of-the-oldest-comic-in-the-world-56225>

Vincent, David. I hope I don’t intrude : privacy and its dilemmas in nineteenth-century Britain. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

“William Heath.” Victorian Art history. <<http://www.avictorian.com/Heath_William.html>>

“William Heath (1795-1840)

The boarding and taking of the American frigate “Chesapeak” by HM Frigate “Shannon”, 1st June 1813.” Christies. <http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5874018

Date: Dec 4, 2016