Cat. no. 85-32

Man o' War, British 20-Gun Ship, 1795

Date: Nov-85
Item Type: Painting
Support: Canvas (Cotton Or Linen)
Dimensions: 48 X 76

Man o' War, British 20-Gun Ship, 1795. 48 x 76.

1. For twenty years, from the rise of the French Directorate until the
final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Great Britain maintained
approximately one thousand ships at sea. In order to manage such a
feat, it became necessary to standardize different rates of ships.
The first-class man o' war, such as Nelson's flag ship, Victory,
carried over one hundred guns. From this rate, all ships were
classified in five separate rates, the smallest being the 20-gun ship.
All smaller craft used for communication and scouting had no ratings
nor standard specifications. The Admiralty published "establishments,"
which set forth in detail the dimensions and quality of every spar,
mast and piece of rigging for every rate of ship of the line. The
Admiralty also issued specifications for all sails to be used on each
class of ship. Packages containing complete outfits of masts, sails
and rigging were made up and stored in England and shipped out to the
fleets blockading the French and Spanish ports in the Mediterranean,
Indies and Atlantic, when any ship required overhauling or repair,
whether it was a result of combat, weather or wear. With these
establishments and specifications in hand, I drew out the mast, yard
and spar plan, rigging and sails of a 20-gun ship for the purpose of
seeing how she would compare to the plans of other ships of her day.
It became apparent that her rigging was conservative, that her main
source of power from the wind consisted of her large topsails. It was
easy to see why the British always considered the American ships
over-sparred, because the American contemporaries during the war of
1812 consistently carried more canvas. In looking at the painting of
ships' sails bellied out in the wind, I find that painters
consistently consider the surface of the sail to be essentially a
trapezoidal area cut from a portion of a sphere. Thus, all the seams
running vertically and the reefing bends running horizontally are
painted as ellipses. The sails don't look right. So, from a pattern
I made, Roz took some old bed sheets and sewed them with bolt ropes
into 1/12 scale sails in accordance with the 1795 establishments. I
made wooden yards and masts to the 1795 establishments. I made wooden
yards and masts to the same scale and attached the sails; clews,
tacks, sheets, bowlines and halyards were rigged to control the sails
in the wind. When the model was completed, I found that whereas the
topsails were essentially spherical, the mainsails were not, and both
the vertical seams and the reefing bends described S-curves such as
are shown on the main and fore courses of the ship. I have pictured a
20-gun man o' war with the wind off her starboard beam proceeding
under all plain sail in a moderately heavy sea with rain behind her.
The ensign shows the British flag prior to 1801, and her junior
captain, wearing a single epaulet on his left shoulder, stands master
of her quarterdeck.
2. For the Fenn show in 1989 Wilson wrote a
shorter version: During the twenty years that England was at war with
Napoleon, she kept a thousand ships at sea. The only way she could do
so was to standardize all parts of the masts, yards, sails and rigging
according to the number of guns or "rating" of the vessel. This
permitted all ships to be repaired and overhauled at sea. Fortunately,
these specifications still exist. I have drawn the sails, yards, spars
and masts of this twenty-gun ship to the charts published in 1795. She
is under all plain sail, running on a starboard tack before a dark,
rain-filled sky, probably well into her second full year at sea.

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