What a life: it reads like a novel! And what a story behind the painting!
Actually Garneray wrote three novels about his own life.
He was the son of a painter. He left Paris at the age of thirteen to join the French navy, at the time when Napoleon started having his first military successes. During ten years he would sail in the Indian Ocean, fighting against the British.
March 1806 his ship was captured by the British. Garneray would remain a prisoner in Great Britain until 1814. Because of the lack of space for 130.000 French prisoners in real prisons the British turned ships they had taken on the French and Spaniards into prison hulks. Our future painter was imprisoned in such a floating prison in the bay of Portsmouth. Each overcrowded hulk held 700 prisoners in the most terrible conditions. Trying to make some money on the side Garneray started painting. He painted views of the bay with the infamous prison hulks. These were sold by English art dealers to English clients. During the Napoleonic wars they would of course never buy a painting by a French painter. So these paintings remained unsigned and his dealers put the very English name “Hoppey Turner” on small plaques.
May 1814, after Napoleon had abdicated and was sent to Elba, Garneray and many French prisoners were released and they returned to France. As it was impossible to find a job aboard a French ship Garneray became a professional painter: he was very successful and he was appointed as the first “Peintre de la Marine”.
About Ambroise Louis Garneray, an adventurous life that reads like a novel
Paris 1783 – 1857 Paris
Marine painter (and engraver) and writer.
Garneray is considered as one of the greatest French marine painters. As with the epic stories of his adventures he is seen as a precursor of the maritime novel of adventure.
Garneray was born in Paris in 1783, six years before the French Revolution and just a few months before the Peace of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War and Great Britain thus recognized American sovereignty.
His father, Jean-François Garneray (1755–1837), was one of the first of the numerous pupils of the great Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825). He painted miniatures, later also portraits and anecdotic, historisizing genre scenes in the so-called Troubadour style.
His second son, Auguste-Siméon, also painted in this style. Anther son, Hippolyte, and a daughter, Pauline, were also painters.
Our painters’ life can be divided into three parts: that as a seaman, that as a prisoner and that as a painter.
In 1796, aged thirteen, he joined the French Navy as a seaman, encouraged by his cousin, Beaulieu-Leloup, who was the commander of a frigate. He served during campaigns and sea battles against the British in the Indian Ocean around Mauritius.
In the year 1800 Garneray joined during nine months the famous French privateer Robert Surcouf, as there were no more official French maritime forces left in the Indian Ocean. Privateers were in fact officially recognized pirates who were allowed to attack ships of nations who were at war with France; in Surcouf’s case British, American and Portuguese merchantmen.
October 7th Surcouf (with Garneray aboard) captured the British East Indiaman Kent. With the much smaller 18-gun brig, the Confiance, Surcouf managed to board the much larger 40-gun Kent. After a battle across the decks the 150 French privateers were able to beat the 300 British soldiers and sailors. Captain Surcouf granted his men one hour of free pillaging, while the female passengers (the Kent had 137 passengers) were strictly protected by French sentries. This generous gesture did not prevent Surcouf, by then a sensation all over Great-Britain, to have a reward put on his head by the British Admirality.
The Musée d’Histoire of Saint-Malo (Surcouf was born here) holds a painting by Garneray representing the heroic attack.
For the only time as a sailor the privateer Garneray made some serious money aboard the Kent, which he sadly invested in a slave trading ship, la Doris. He served aboard it as first mate, that is as an officer ranked immediately below the captain.
Two-three years later he started serving aboard various trading ships, then possibly a pirate ship and he finally joined the French navy again. At the Sea Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson had decisevely beaten the French and Spanish Navies; Napoleon would not threaten the United Kingdom over sea anymore, though on the European mainland he did beat the Coalition already two months later at Austerlitz. Garneray had not been at Trafagar, but a few months later, in March 1806, his ship the “Belle Poule” (“Beatiful Chick”) was captured by the British, he himself was wounded. He was 23 years old.
Starts the second, terrible part of Garneray’s life, that as a prisoner, which will last for eight long years from 1806 until 1814.
Members of Napoleon’s French Navy, but also from the commercial navy and even from his land forces captured in Spain, were emprisoned by the British on the river Medway near Chatham, or off Plymouth and in our painter’s case in the bay of Portmouth harbour aboard so-called prison hulks, decommissioned French and Spanish ships-of-the-line that were being used as floating prisons. They were rendered inoperable once all canons and elements required for sailing (masts, sails, rigging and rudders) had been removed and after new features (jails) had been incorporated.
May 18th 1814 our prisoner was finally released. April 1814 Napoleon had announced his unconditional abdication, but he returned to power after the Hundred Days, and was finally and decisevely beaten at Waterloo June 1815.
After Garneray’s return to France, started his life as a professional painter, in fact because he could not find a job in the commercial navy. In 1817 he became appointed painter to the Grand Admiral of France, the Duke of Angoulême. Between 1821 and 1830 he was the first Peintre de la Marine, the official Painter of the French Navy. He was very succesful and he was considered a worthy successor to Joseph Vernet.
In 1833, he was made director of the Fine Arts museum of Rouen. He joined the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres in 1841, making designs for its porcelain production. In the 1840s his fame dimmed and he fell into poverty. In 1852 he was created Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
In 1820 Garneray got married. His wife was murdered just a few months after his death, her murderer was never found.
About our painting
In the large, sheltered bay of Portsmouth Harbour Garneray was emprisoned aboard two large, former French battle ships, the 64- gun Protée and the 74-gun Vengeance.
As one can see in our painting a row of prison hulks was laying in a line, moored in the mud.
During the Napoleonic Wars England made some 130.000 French prisoners. There were simply not enough prisons available and Great Britain had lost America where prisonners could be send to in the past. Instead of investing into rather expensive new prison buildings it seemed more appropriate to change ships taken on the ennemy into prisons.
No need to say this was not the Club Med. Apparently, according to British sources, conditions on board were not that terrible. French sources on the other hand focus on intolerable sufferings. The conditions on board the hulks were unheatlhy and overcrowded, with little or no ventilation since the ports on the landward side were boarded over as a deterrent against escape.
Garneray described his life off Portsmouth in “Mes Pontons”, “The Floating Prison”, which was one of the three volumes of his memoirs, that were later, after his death, during the 1660s, re-written with addition of rather spectacular but not very realistic elements to serve the new emperor, Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. I have taken the following information from Garneray’s epic description of his prison years.
According to Garneray each hulk held some 700 French prisoners guarded by 40 to 50 British soldiers. Most of the French navymen developped some sort of skill aboard: many made the now extremely sought-after intricate models of British Navy ships in bone. This kept the prisoners happy and busy, plus the extra income boosted morale. The US Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis holds one of the largest collections known.
Garneray remembered that in 1799, before joining the privateer Surcouf the next year, he had been promoted quartermaster and “first painter of the edge” on the Preneuse. Who said art can not improve once life? So at first aboard the prison hulk Protée he started making designs for those who would make straw drawings decorating the lids of small boxes. But within the first year of his emprisonment he started drawing and painting portraits of the English guards. By 1809 he had made a deal with the English bookkeeper of the Protée. No longer did he have to paint in the over-crowded gun deck that served as a prison, he could now work in the office of the bookkeeper, at the rear of the ship, on the poop deck. This time he started painting marine paintings. Garneray improved further his position by becoming an interpreter.
Still in 1809 he was moved to another prison hulk, the Vengeance, as its interpreter had just died. Here also he was able to paint in a small room on the poop deck. Soon he met Abraham Curtis, a dealer in paintings from Portsea Island (which is the most important part of Portmouth). Curtis proposed him a seemingly honest deal and our painter worked hard: he finished three to four marine views per month, for which he was paid one pound stirling per piece. Later Garneray met James Smith, another dealer in paintings, who told him his paintings sold well in England: he proposed not one but five pounds sterling per piece.
After almost six years spent aboard the prison hulks Protée and Vengeance, Smith was able to move Garneray to the mainland in 1812. Half-way Portsmouth and Winchester another large group of French prisoners was kept in a parole area at the small village of Bishop’s Waltham. Garneray installed his “studio” in a small ruined farmhouse. Four months after his arrival, on a beautiful day in spring, Garneray walked with two French officers to a farmhouse a mile further. Both his friends were savagely attacked by a farmer and killed. The locals told the police Garneray was the killer and he was obliged to flee with a small ship to France. Close to the harbour of Cherbourg he was arrested and returned to the prison hulk Vengeance. During one month he lead the same terrible life as the other prisoners. And then re-appeared Abraham Curtius, his first dealer, whose cousin was still the captain of the Vengeance. Garneray got his former privileges back and started painting again, though Curtis’ price was now only 10 shilling per painting. A few months later a peace treaty was signed between France and Great Britain. Soon Garneray returned to Paris … via Cherbourg.
None of Garneray’s two and a half dozen of views of Portsmouth harbour and its line of prison hulks is signed; a French prisoner of war would not sell very well at a time when Napoleon was threatening to take the major part of the European continent. Curtis and/or Smith, who commercialised his paintings must therefore have had a good sence of humour: the name on the plaque on some of these paintings, including ours, reads as “Hoppey Turner”.
The National Maritime Museum in London-Greenwich holds three similar views of Portmouth and its line of prison hulks by Garneray. When two of them entered the collection in the 1930s they had been previously, but erroneously, attributed to Daniel Turner, a London painter best-known for his views of Nelson’s funeral, active between 1782 and 1820.
As to Garneray’s views of the line of prison ships laying in Portsmouth harbour. These views were apparently all made in the same direction, towards the S., into the direction of France, probably from the island left of Portchester Castle, which is the only island in the harbour.
In our view, behind the line of prison hulks at left lays Portmouth on Portsea Island, on the right Gosport. In between them the entrance to the port and the hills of the Isle of Wight in the background.
To the right other ships, with pennants flying, are also anchored 'in ordinary' (reserve) in the Upper Harbour, including what appear to be two large Spanish prizes.
One should not forget that Garneray painted his Portsmouth views in extremely difficult conditions: as a French prisonner in English custidy, surrounded by 700 fellow prsionners or in a small office that he could use as a studio; a few must have been painted in the village of Bishop’s Waltham.
As to the materials he could use, these must have been very basic and cheap. Some of the paintings were made on diferent canvasses sewn together.
The paint he given seems clearly to have been of very good quality. The surface of his English paintings has suffered, small dots appear all over.
This adds of course to the sense of originallity and suffering that speaks from these works of art.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a superb representation of a an incredible subject.