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This painting is by a man called Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821), a Bristol-born artist who was known during his lifetime for the detailed paintings he produced of naval scenes. His skills were originally honed during a spell as in the merchant navy, when he spent some of his time at sea making sketches and ships of coastal scenes for his log books.
The event shown in the painting is one of Plymouth’s most famous shipwrecks. It’s inspired numerous other paintings and engravings, many created by Pocock and his younger contemporary, Thomas Luny.
The ‘Dutton’ was built on the Thames in 1781 and chartered by the East India Company. It was bound for the West Indies with troops on board when it was wrecked in Plymouth Sound during a gale on 26 January 1796.
This is an atmospheric painting that gives the impression of drama. You can see dark clouds, heavy waves and people calling out to the boat from the shore. The Plymouth coastline and other boats are shown through the driving rain. Mount Batten tower in the background and the Citadel to the left are recognisable landmarks.
The Dutton is shown close to the shore with waves crashing against it. Its masts are gone but a series of rescue lines are being held by people on the beach. In the bottom left hand corner, a small group are helping what looks like an exhausted survivor. Other figures are still in the water, holding on to bits of wreckage as they make their way towards land and safety.
The rescue operation from the wreck is one of the things that made it so famous.
It was led by a man called Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth. He was a British naval officer with Cornish roots who fought during the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
Pellew was stationed at Falmouth commanding a squadron of frigates, but on 26 January happened to be in Plymouth. He was a powerful man and so he swam out to the grounded boat with a line. This enabled the rescue lines that you can see in the painting, otherwise known as ’breeches buoys’, to be rigged.
Thanks to Pellew and the efforts of those on the shore all but four of the estimated 600 people on board were saved from the wreck. It’s believed he is the officer in the blue uniform coat that you can just about see standing on the poop deck.