arts and design

The Great British Art Tour: a flagship work from when Britain 'ruled the waves'

This dramatic painting by Charles Brooking hangs in the Picture Gallery of the Foundling Museum. Taylor White, treasurer of the Foundling Hospital at the time, commissioned the seascape in 1754. According to John Brownlow’s Memoranda or Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital, White had seen one of Brooking’s pictures in a shop.

Brooking painted this enormous picture – over three metres wide – in just 18 days, working in a room in the Foundling Hospital itself because his own garret studio was too small. The painting, Brooking’s largest, was intended to be a companion piece to Peter Monamy’s seascape An English Fleet in the Downs, which has been missing since the beginning of the 20th century.

Much of Britain’s growth and prosperity in the 18th century was founded on the labour of enslaved people in Britain’s empire, enabled through maritime and naval power. The commissioning and displaying of this seascape reflected the Foundling Hospital’s foundation and origins as a patriotic project, with Thomas Coram appealing to the nation’s need for soldiers, sailors and workers, as well as to human compassion towards disadvantaged children.

The artist painted three versions of this subject, the other two are in the collections at Royal Museums Greenwich and Tate. Brooking was himself elected a governor of the hospital in June 1754, by which time his painting was on display. He was unfortunately not able to capitalise on the work’s success and died in poverty a few years later at the age of 36. He was buried in the cemetery of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which was where Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery now stand.

The painting was loaned in 2016 to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut for its exhibition Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth century British Marine Painting. The painting is so large the canvas needed to be removed from the frame and the frame split into two pieces for it to leave the Foundling’s gallery.

• You can see more art from the Foundling Museum on Art UK here, and find out more on the museum’s website.

• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.


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