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Insights From The Arts - Behind the HMS Trincomalee 1883 Oil Painting

Many of the artefacts associated to the Royal Navy's history, and those gifted to or purchased for the collections, have interesting stories behind them.

In this blog we're looking at this oil painting of HMS Trincomalee which provides useful insights about the ship's historical appearance.

Clare Hunt, Senior Curator at The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool, shares insights discovered from this rare historical painting of the ship.

Detail of the ship in the 1883 oil painting

Detail of the bottom right inscription on the painting

First Impressions

A few years ago, I got an email from a lady who said she had an oil painting of HMS Trincomalee. She had had the picture for a while but it wasn’t until she took the frame off that she could read the ship’s name on the bottom right, along with a date which read ‘26 June 83.’

At first, of course, I thought this must be a painting from 1983 and I must admit that I wasn’t very excited at the prospect. The ship has been painted many, many times in the modern period, and very often not very well! However, the lady sent me an image of the picture and I could see that it was good quality but the photograph made it look like a watercolour.

Again, because of this, I thought it may be a modern picture as watercolour is the favoured medium of amateur artists today.

However, the owner of the picture and her family were planning a visit to the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool to see HMS Trincomalee, and promised to bring the picture so I could see it in the flesh.

Oil Painting Insights

When I finally saw it, I was delighted because not only was it an oil but clearly an old one; not 1983 but 1883.

We know that at this period the ship was in Southampton Water acting as a Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) training ship.

The training was centred around the regularly updated guns on board Royal Navy ships, so the Trincomalee was often refitted with the latest weapons for trainees to use.

The ship was by then a hulk, meaning that two of her masts were removed so she could no longer sail.

The image also clearly shows that the ship had a reduced number of gun ports, consistent with records which describe her being fitted with fewer, but bigger, guns for training.

Furthermore, I could see in the picture that the ship was covered with an awning; these were used to protect the decks from the sun and rain.

A photograph of the ship in the 1870s when she was based in Sunderland, shows a frame in place which may have been for supporting an awning too.

So, thanks to this owner of the painting, not only is this the rediscovery of a historic image showing us what the ship looked like at the period, but it is also a beautiful little artwork, usefully titled and dated by the artist, but not signed.

In her time, Trincomalee was not a particularly famous or celebrated ship; she was one of many frigates and therefore not the subject of many paintings. It just shows that after 200 years, there are still things to be found which tell us more about the ship and her historical appearance.

Photograph of HMS Trincomalee at Sunderland in the 1870s

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