When The Mary Rose Sank – Historic Tudor Picture Of The Battle Of The Solent

ORIGINAL TITLE:
The Encampment of the English Forces Near Portsmouth, Together With a View of the English and French Fleets at the Commencement of the Action Between Them on the XIXth of July MDXLV (19th of July 1545)

OTHER NAMES:

  • The Cowdry Picture
  • The Cowdry Print
  • The Last Moments of the Mary Rose

This historic picture was originally painted in 1545 or just afterwards from eye-witness accounts – and was destroyed by fire in 1793. It shows the last man standing on the crow’s nest of the great Tudor warship Mary Rose – the rest of the ship has disappeared as she sinks below the waves of the Solent.

This article describes the importance of the picture and the story of its preservation and re-publication by modern fine art printing technology. In a sense, the story of the picture modestly echoes the story of the modern technology that helped find, recapture and ultimately preserve the Mary Rose warship herself.

The picture measures almost two metres across and a near-full-size reproduction hangs prominently in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to illustrate the context of the Battle of the Solent, the forgotten action in which Mary Rose went down. Sales of the same reproduction print help to raise funds for a new Mary Rose Museum building in which to reunite the inspiring remains of the resurrected warship with the thousands of her crew’s Tudor items recovered from the wreck site, from coins and cannon to English longbows.

The warship’s English flag is shown still flying as she slides to her death, surrounded by bodies in the centre of the picture, just above Southsea Castle.

The dispositions of the fleets for the sea battle, and of the English army preparing to defend Southsea and the approaches to Portsmouth, are on show here. The boats are correctly shown in the deep-water channels of the Solent. Historians say that everybody important who attended the event is in the picture, and it has been proven to be geographically accurate. No wonder that asking a question about the picture is all you need to get senior museum personnel talking at length on the fateful events of that day.

On the morning of July 19, 1545, simply the biggest invasion fleet ever to reach British shores had sailed around the eastern side of the Isle of Wight, landed troops and burned villages near Bembridge, and massed in the Solent with the intention of capturing the town and naval base of Portsmouth. It is thought up to 40,000 French invasion troops were on board.

The mighty French fleet, augmented by gun galleys on loan from the Vatican, had been sent to teach King Henry VIII’s newly Protestant England a lesson and quash Henry’s claim to the throne of France once and for all. Henry had previously been protected from the French by his alliance with Spain, friends he lost when he divorced his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon.

A year earlier, in 1544, Henry had invaded France and laid siege to Boulogne – another battle recorded in a matching great panoramic picture (by a different original artist) now also available as a modern reproduction helping the Mary Rose new museum building fund. Also in 1544, Henry commissioned the building of Southsea Castle to protect the sea lanes into Portsmouth Harbour – shown in this picture newly opened, just in time to fire on the French invaders.

The invasion fleet was twice as big as the much more famous Spanish Armada defeated by Francis Drake in later Elizabethan times. As the English fleet sailed out to engage the French off Southsea Castle, led by flagships The Great Harry and The Mary Rose, the Battle of the Solent had begun.

Today, the Battle of the Solent is largely forgotten as an inconclusive military stand-off in largely becalmed waters. In practice the English won by virtue of the French being unable to break through to Portsmouth.

But the events which would otherwise remain as just a historical footnote are alive in the memory because of the famous sinking of the Mary Rose, her dramatic rediscovery (in exactly the position where she is shown sinking in the picture) and then her ultimate resurrection in 1982 in front of a worldwide TV audience of tens of millions of people.

The original picture (artist unknown) of c.1545 is a brilliant piece of art. The characters are all full of life and style, drawn with immense detail and character.

Satellite mapping today of the coast of the Isle of Wight matches the coast painted here, even though the picture’s aerial view could never have been seen by the artist as there is no hill from which that view can be seen and obviously there were no aircraft of any sort in 1545. Old maps and plans of the town of Portsmouth show the precision of the layout of key buildings in the picture.
The underwater photographer on the project to find and raise the Mary Rose which culminated in her salvage in 1982 was Dr. Dominic Fontana, now Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Portsmouth, who has much more about the picture and its accurate geography on his site.

The original picture was commissioned by the Master of the King’s Horse, Sir Anthony Browne, seen on the white horse in the dead centre of the picture, directly behind the King (a spectacular piece of political self-aggrandisement available to Browne as the client paying the artist! – the Commander-in-Chief of the army, Sir Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, is painted riding alongside Browne, largely obscured but for his mighty beard). Browne had earlier commissioned the panoramic picture of “The Siege of Boulogne”, in a much simpler, cartoonistic style than that of the artist responsible for this work. Perhaps he learned from the first work that he needed an artist with more sophisticated skills.

These two pictures plus two others depicting the 1544 campaign in France and one from 1547 hung in the dining hall of Browne’s home, Cowdry House (a.k.a. Cowdry Castle) in Sussex, which became the seat of the Viscounts Montague when Browne’s family was ennobled. The other pictures of the 1544 campaign in France were “The Departure from Calais” and “The Camping of The King at Marquison”.

A fire destroyed Cowdry House in 1793 and all the historic original pictures went up in smoke. Today the old walls of the Cowdry House ruins still rise to a great height near the international polo fields of what is now called Cowdray Park at Midhurst in West Sussex. After 200 years mouldering away, the ruins were restored and opened again in early 2007.

So how can we have reproductions of the destroyed Battle of the Solent picture? Just five years before the fire, by a stroke of great good luck and brilliant timing, the Society of Antiquaries of London had copied both pictures to preserve as important historical records. In 1788 Browne allowed the society to commission Samuel Hieronymus Grimm to make painstaking copies by hand – in obviously masterly fashion. While doing so, Grimm painted his own watercolour and ink pictures of Cowdry House itself. The society then employed a fine engraver, James Basire, to make plates from Grimm’s copies; black-and-white prints were then published for the enlightenment of historians and military scholars.

The 1788 prints were very large for prints at that time – 1,775mm (nearly 6ft.) wide, by 545mm (nearly 22 inches) high. The engravings had to be printed in two halves on pairs of sheets of paper that were then joined, as 18th Century paper-making technology did not reach to sheets of even 3ft. wide.

Sometime over the centuries from 1788 another artist hand-coloured one of the 1788 prints. This was used to make a reproduction Battle of the Solent 1788 print which in 2007 went on sale on the Internet to support the Mary Rose Museum. So the best available 21st Century high-resolution scanning and computerised fine-art printing technologies have now been employed to capture and faithfully reproduce the fine details of a hand-coloured Basire engraving from Grimm’s 1788 hand copy after the 1545 original painting.

The stylishly coloured reproduction looks best on canvas, which lends a suitably old feel to the picture, but is also available on archival paper. Both are printed with UV-resistant, archival pigment inks, in a seven-colour giclée printing process. Surprisingly, the richly detailed old picture looks impressive on the sparse walls of minimalist modern homes.

DONATIONS TO The Mary Rose MUSEUM FUND

The Mary Rose was the pride of the Tudor Navy built by Henry VIII – “the father of the English navy”. After she sank in the Battle of the Solent, she lay on the sea bed off Southsea Castle for 437 years until she became an international icon again when she dramatically rose to the surface again in 1982.

Since then she has been intensively treated and has now been restored from the destructive effects of soaking in sea water for four centuries.

Now a new museum building is needed to reunite the great ship – currently inspiringly displayed in an ancient dry dock under a huge hut in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, southern England – with the artefacts found alongside her in the mud of the Solent sea bed.

But Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund – the relevant funding authority – has so far refused to contribute the necessary £13.5m towards the new museum building, which remains in doubt, casting doubt on the future of the ancient warship herself.

To help raise funds towards the £23m. total required, the publishers of the print request interested people to make voluntary donations. They themselves promise 20% of the online price of the Battle of the Solent art print (and an associated spoof Tudor Football reproduction poster) will go to the fund.

Incidentally, there is a free download available of wallpaper for your PC carrying the spoof Tudor Football reproduction poster). When downloading your free computer wallpaper you also have the opportunity to make a voluntary donation to the museum fund online … you will be helping preserve unique British heritage for your children.