New York City – Some Famous American Naval Prints

In the pages of that delightful repository of antiquarian lore concerning New York of an older period—Valentine’s Manual—one may see an old-time print or two of exceeding interest, not so much for what they are as for the tremendous developments which they foreshadowed. One is dated October 14, 1814 others a little later ; and it required the passing of a full century before their full significance could be realized.

The first scene is laid in the palace of the Tuilleries. Napoleon has granted an audience to a young American inventor who is enlarging upon the merits of an idea which he claims would destroy the British fleets and lay the shores of Albion prostrate before the soldiers of the Empire. It is an important matter and the greatest strategist the world has ever known calls to his aid the most eminent body of scientists in his dominion, the French Academy. That august body deliberates at length and also experiments with the result that they report that power enough to propel a small toy might be developed, but to force a vessel across the Channel and discharge this strange missile called a “torpedo” with sufficient force to destroy an enemy ship, was not to be seriously considered. Napoleon therefore declined to entertain the matter further. Proceeding to England, the inventor prevailed upon Lord Chatham to witness a practical demonstration of his torpedo, and in front of the Prime Minister’s house in the harbor of Deal, and in the presence of a large number of persons, he launched one of his torpedoes against the hull of a large derelict provided for the purpose, and destroyed it completely. The present-day reports of instant destruction were equalled if not surpassed in this attempt. The vessel was blown into a thousand pieces and sank immediately.

The idea was rejected upon the ground that England being mistress of the seas could not afford to encourage the development of so terrible an engine of destruction, and no other nation had the means or the inclination at the time to make the necessary investment, as it could not be profitable. Such was the original invention of the torpedo, and the inventor’s name, as our readers may have guessed, was none other than our hero—Robert Fulton.

His submarine was never tried ; but his iron-clad “Fulton the First” was safely launched in the Harbor of New York right opposite the present Battery, and proved practical. A double page picture of this interesting event forms one of the three old prints in the Manual to which I have referred.

The absorbing interest with which all Naval prints pertaining to American history are now regarded, is largely the result of the present activity of the sub-marine and the deadly torpedo. And while the immortal skill of a Jeakes, a Tiebout, a Richards, or a Pocock failed to delineate this epochmaking incident of Fulton’s, there is a very distinct and close connection between the two. And my references to these half-forgotten prints may not be amiss.

In the famous collection now possessed by the India House in New York, is a modest painting that will some day become famous as the subject of some future aqua-tint or other art production—the William P. Frye. It lacks the delicacy of coloring possessed by the etchings of a century ago, but as the starting point of the never-to-be-forgotten ruthlessness of the German submarine it will some day take high rank among collectors. There is something pathetic in this peaceful looking merchant-man when one recalls its tragic end. And its cruel fate will ever add an interest to the print which it would not otherwise possess.

Turning however to the Naval prints of long ago, we find here an entirely different atmosphere. There may be sights more calculated to stir the blood than the old time all hands-repel-boarders sea fight, but if such there be I have failed to find it. And in the mighty combat between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis painted by Paton and engraved by Fittler, published in 1790, we have a spirited representation that satisfies every longing of the soul.

A very wonderful ensemble and one which sums up a whole chapter in Naval history is that curious and little known folio aquatint under the title of “Sprigs of Lau-rel.” It was drawn and engraved. by that well known artist, W. S. Strickland, with whose other work, both in New York and Philadelphia, we are quite familiar. In this remarkable grouping, however, Strickland has gathered together no less than nine distinct engagements, beginning with Perry’s victory at Lake Erie and ending with the encounter between the Peacock and L’Epervier.

This fascinating aquatint is unknown to Stauffer and is of the greatest scarcity. It is accordingly of surpassing interest, and though Mr. John Kneass, of 125 Market Street, Philadelphia, announced its publication at the modest sum of $3.00 per copy it brought one of the highest prices paid at the late Halsey sale in whose collection it had reposed for many years. The vessels represented are the Constitution and Guerriere, Wasp and Frolic, United States and Macedonian, Constitution and Java, Hornet blockading Bonne Citoyenne, sinking of the Peacock and L’Epervier. The battle of Lake Erie forms the chief vignette across the entire print ; the other scenes somewhat smaller. It is surprisingly well drawn and the colors add much to its fascination.

The very scarce original impression of the folio aqua-tint from a drawing by Birch, showing the loss of the packet ship Albion, is an item that appeals with rare force to the collector. The engraving is by Tiebout, whose view of the Federal Hall in Wall Street has made him among the best known of early New York engravers. This, however, was published in Philadelphia, October 25th, 1823, by S. Kennedy at No. 58 Walnut Street. Stauffer has it recorded as No. 3200. The original colored impression was recently disposed of at a sale in New York and brought an attractive figure. Robert Havel, another New Yorker, also figures prominently in a spirited rendering of the combat between the Constitution and Java. The latter is in a set of four, and very scarce.

Tiebout afterwards entered the publishing business on his own account as we find a rather ambitious under-taking by him in the production of a line folio depicting the “Glorious and Brilliant Victory” obtained by Commodore O. H. Perry over the British Fleet on Lake Erie. It bears the date 1813 and was printed by Riley and Adams, No. 238 Water Street, New York. In the margin are printed eight Naval engagements. The en-tire plate is in colors and is now of greatest scarcity. Of the many numerous engravings of this interesting event this is one that is rarely met with. Its value is constantly enhancing.

Tiebout also published the same year an excellent plate of the Constitution and Guerriere from a painting by T. Birch. This is now very rare and its value is constantly increasing. Stauffer has recorded this as No. 3206. All these old Naval combats seem to have been great favorites with our early engravers, as we find several examples of the Chesapeake and Shannon; the Constitution and Guerriere ; the Constitution and Java ; the Endymion and President. We are thus fortunate in having examples of the best artists—J. T. Lee, Joseph Jeakes, Thomas Whitecombe, Anna Jeakes, Robert Dodd, J. C. Schetky, L. Haghe, Garrey, Debucourt, Coqueret, Robert and D. Havell, Montardier Bangean, P. W. Tompkins and others.

One of the most complete collections of these particular prints is that possessed by Mr. H. O. Havemeyer, Jr., of New York. For many years Mr. Havemeyer has been an industrious collector of these fascinating subjects, and as several important collections have recently been dispersed his has naturally been enhanced thereby.

It is quite impossible to describe the charm of these old time aquatints or the extreme delicacy of their coloring. And their reproduction in black fails to convey an adequate idea of the fascination possessed by the colored originals. It would seem as though a revival of this lost art would meet with appreciation today. There is certainly nothing that quite supplies their place in the market today.

In these prints we have almost a complete history of the early days of the American Navy, and it is a record to stir the red blood in a man’s veins. In view of what we have been obliged to read during the last year or so, it is refreshing to recall the days of clean fights, of manly combats and of that ancient chivalry which seems inseparable from fighters of the sea. The achievements of the Anglo-Saxon sailors have made many a brilliant page in naval history from the days of Drake to Farragut.

Let us hope that this glorious record will be kept unsullied in the stormy days that are to come. Let us hope that no matter what the provocation, the American ideal of manliness, of squareness, of self-respect will never be lowered. Let those who will, adopt the methods of the Barbary pirate and the Chinese junk; but let the Yankee sailor lad be always as he has been—a credit to the men who go down to the sea in ships and a glory to the service.