John Cleveley, Senior c.1712-1777
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John Cleveley, Senior c.1712-1777

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Two 32-gun frigates receiving their Captains


Oil  painting on canvas 30 x 40 inches. Framed: 35 x 46 1/2 in (89 x 118 cm)

Signed and dated lower left 'J. Cleveley Pinx / 1768'


Provenance: Probably acquired by Junius S. Morgan Jr., Locust Valley, New York, thence by descent to John Pierpont Morgan II.


The ships portrayed are 32-gun frigates (5th-rates) taking their design from the captured French ship the Renomme which had been captured in 1747, and which started a trend in cruiser design. The first such ship draughted in England was HMS Southampton laid down in 1756. They were “the standard and most successful class of frigates until the end of the French Revolutionary Wars” (EHH Archibald The fighting ships of the Royal Navy (1987) p.48). Some nineteen such ships were built in UK yards before 1786, the date of the present painting, and they were constructed in such diverse locations as Deptford, Harwich, Hull, Chatham, Liverpool, Sheerness, Bucklers Hard and Sheerness.


A “Frigate” is strictly a ship of two decks which carries its main armament of 20 – 50 guns on her upper deck, quarter-deck and fo’c’sle, there being no guns (oddly) on the gun-deck. Earlier British so-called frigates, the 44’s, built pre-1760, had suffered from an inability to use the lower-deck guns in blowy weather and were heavy sailers compared with French and Spanish ships which carried their main batteries on one deck. The new class of frigate at first was fitted with 12-pounders on the upper deck, and 6-pounders of the quarter deck

Born at Southwark on the southern side of the River Thames, John Cleveley was the son of a joiner, and was apprenticed to another joiner in 1726. Cleveley worked as a young man in the Royal Dockyard at Deptford - as did his twin sons, John the Younger (1747-86) and Robert (1747-1809) whose painting is sometimes confused with their father's. His third son, James, was ship's carpenter on the Resolution during Cook's last Pacific voyage, 1776-80.

Through his work in the dockyards, Cleveley gained an intimate knowledge of contemporary ships and their equipment, and likely was influenced by the dockyard painters who decorated the sides of ships. From the late 1740s he painted a series of ship-launches and dockyard scenes at Deptford, where he spent most of his life and where he died, maintaining his career as a craftsman throughout his life. Letters of administration given to his widow upon his death referred to him as 'carpenter belonging to His Majesty's Ship Victory', so it is possible that he was attached to her towards the end of his life. He also established himself as a painter of ship-portraits and other maritime scenes, including a few commissions showing naval engagements. His sense of detail was remarkable, with particular attention paid to the human figures, flags and small craft which populated his paintings and gave them their unique charm.