by Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1830), oil on canvas
Though you see me now, the mere ghost of a man,
I once had the heart of a lion.
Commanding my ship, between many a shore,
The ol’ Jolly Roger a-flyin’
This oil painting was gifted to Plymouth’s art collections in 1946.
It’s entitled ‘The Chase of the Pirate Lugger Will Watch’ and was painted by a British artist called Thomas Buttersworth.
Buttersworth was born on the Isle of Wight in 1768 and joined the Royal Navy as a young man. He began his painting career while he was at sea. Some of his works featuring famous battles in the Mediterranean, such as the Blockade of Cadiz in 1797, are so accurate it’s believed they were painted on location.
Buttersworth served on ships called the Enterprise and then the Caroline as an able seaman. He later became a master-at-arms and a midshipman. In 1800, he was injured and sent home. On his return to England, he established his name as a painter of maritime subjects, especially large naval and merchant vessels and important naval engagements.
He was a prolific artist and his paintings are still popular with collectors today. There are seven works by him in the collections at The Box, including a painting of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
‘The Chase of the Pirate Lugger Will Watch’ shows a naval vessel in pursuit of a pirate ship or lugger – a square rigged sloop-built (single-masted) vessel, historically used for trade and privateering. Luggers were often favoured by pirates because of their ability to move quickly and easily.
Pirates often modified their ships to carry more cannons and would also have a much bigger crew than other vessels of a similar size. The extra men would be used to climb on board and take over any captured ships.
The black pirate flag with its white skull and cross bones, otherwise known as a ‘Jolly Roger’ can be seen flying in Buttersworth’s painting, as the naval vessel pursues it. The flag indicates that the men on board are prepared to use lethal combat in battle.
If you look even more closely you can see a number of the crew on deck. One of them is peering through a telescope. There are holes in the lugger’s sails, most likely perforations from cannon fire. A smaller boat with at least two people in it can be seen in the bottom right, although its relationship to the larger vessels is not clear.
Dark shadows surround them all giving the painting a dramatic and slightly sinister tone. The break in the clouds above almost acts like a spotlight.
Song Lyrics from ‘Pirate Song’ by Alestorm