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This work shows an unidentified ship in dock about to be launched, as indicated by four large flags flying from her deck. Dominating the right hand side of the painting is an English-built Indiaman ‘Les Trois Amis’. However, the name is curious because no ship called ‘Les Trois Amis’ is listed in East India Company records.
A similar Cleveley painting of 1757 shows the launch of the ‘Cambridge’ to the left and a view of the ‘Royal George’ to the right; while Cleveley’s painting of ‘St Albans floated out at Deptford’ of 1747 shows a view similar to the left hand part of this composition (both National Maritime Museum). In fact, Cleveley repeated this composition several times, using it to represent the launch of different ships at Deptford.
Conservation work on this painting has revealed changes made to the main ship. For example, the flags on ‘Les Trois Amis’ were originally British ensigns but were subsequently painted over in white. Also, the name ‘Les Trois Amis’ was added later. It is thought that these changes were made early in the work’s lifetime, possibly by the artist.
John Cleveley the elder was the son of a joiner from Newington Butts, Southwark. At about 14 he was apprenticed to a joiner and later to John Hall, a Deptford-based shipwright and boat-builder. In 1743 he became a freeman of the Shipwrights’ Company and began his main career as a shipwright in the Royal Dockyard, Deptford. He may have been taught to paint by ship painters based at Deptford. He exhibited his works at the Free Society from 1764 to 1776. His painted views of Sheerness, Chatham and Plymouth dockyards were engraved by Thomas Milton for a series of marine prints. He married Sarah and had at least seven children, including twin sons, John the younger and Robert, who became artists. He died at his home in Deptford, aged about 65.
Collection of R.H. Alexander; collection of Ernest Alexander; by whom presented to the Royal Solent Yacht Club in 1914; with Agnew’s Gallery, London; from whom purchased by the Ministry of Works in June 1964
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