Cornelis Tromp’s Sea Triumph
A remarkable painting of imposing dimensions (159.8 x 214 cm) and one of the rare oil paintings signed W..v.velde: doude. The work is dated 1684, and must have been commissioned by Cornelis Tromp, an Admiral as illustrious as his father Maerten Harpertz. By that year Tromp had been retired from his country’s service. A grand-seigneur, he had been knighted by Charles II in 1675. He probably met Van de Velde senior and junior, either at the English court or at their studio in Greenwich.
This huge painting was no doubt intended te be hung either in Tromp’s county house in s’ Graveland or in his house on Amsterdam’s Heerengracht.
At first sight this marine painting appears to depict a moment in one of the greatest sea-battles in the Anglo-Dutch wars. In fact the British and Dutch ships are exchanging salutes, and the scene simultaneously represents and symbolizes a grandiose mêlée of the sort that played a prominent role in Tromps’s career.
The flagship the Gouden Leeuw is shown in meticulous detail (right foreground), with the Gouda further astern and the three-decker Prince (left).
With a 100 guns, the Prince was one of the heaviest ships in the English fleet. It was in this vessel that Admiral Spragge fought a ferocious battle of Schooneveld in 1673 against the Gouden Leeuw under Lieutenant Admiral Cornelis Tromp.Forced to beat a retreat, Spragge swore that he would seize Tromp either dead or alive off Kijkduin. Fate decided otherwise. When the mainmast and mizzen of the Prince were shot away Spragge had to transfer to a second ship. When this, too, was rendered rudderless, Spragge was compelled to transfer once more. On the way to third vessel, his longboat was holed and Spragge drowned. However, Tromp’s attempt to capture the Prince was unsuccessful.
The Gouden Leeuw was a three-decker which had been completed at the admiralty yard in Amsterdam in 1666. With 82 guns, she, too, was one of the largest warships of het fleet. She was laid up after the third Anglo-Dutch War.
During the Four Day’s Battle (1666), Tromp left his own ship for the Gouda, which had been built on the orders of Rear Admiral Isaac Sweers. Although Tromp assumed command and attempted to capture the stranded vessel of Sir George Ayscue, his commander-in-chief De Ruyter gave order for this to be fired. (The Gouda sank during a gale off the Dutch coast in 1683.)
These feats of arms, which took place in two different battles in two different wars, no doubt inspires Tromp to commission Van de Velde to depict in one painting, the Gouden Leeuw, The Gouda and the ship he had so nearly carried of as a price, the Prince. Van de Velde, who had been in the service of the English court since 1673, achieved this without reminding any chance English viewers of the shameful events off Kijkduin.
The painting, which was hanging in Tromp’s Heerengracht house when he died in 1691, must have had a special significance to its owner in his final shore-bound years; for, in all their glory, it showed the two ships in which his two succesfilm exploits had been performed.
The estates inventory drawn up in April 1692 refers to one sole work by Van de Velde: ‘Een langwerpige stuck met vergulde lijst, synde een zeebataelje van Willem van de Velde den Ouden.’ (‘ A long work with a gilden frame, being a sea battle by Willem van de Velde the Elder.) It was valued at a hundred guilders, and was thereby the most valuable work in the inventory.
During the 18th century the painting was no doubt passed on to successive descendants. At the beginning of the 19th century is was bought by the collector Lucas Stokbroo van Hoog-en Aartswoud (1792-1867), clerk of the court and later magistrate of Hoorn. After his death, his collection-which counted no fewer tax 11825 works – was auctioned. Lot 208 specified ‘ W. van de Velde Senior, A° 1684. voorstelling van de Vierdaegsche Zeeslag, kapitaal stuk.’ (‘W van de Velde Senior, Depiction of the Four Days’ Battle, capital work.) In the light of the nineteenth-century love of historical paintings, it is barely surprising that the work was seen as the depiction of a sea battle and that its hidden significance was overlooked. In 1933 the painting was in the collection of Lady Worverton, Iwerne House, Blandford, Dorset.
The marine expert Michael Robinson has described Tromp’s legacy as Van de Velde’s greatest achievement in oils, remarkable for its painstaking attention to detail. It is the bequest of a marine painter who, braving the waters between the battling parties in his own gig or galjoot, might now be seen as the first real war correspondent at sea.