THE GRAND FLEET AT SEA
Alma Claude Burlton Cull (1880-1931). Watercolour signed and dated 'A B Cull 1920' (lower left) and bearing the original Brook Street Art Gallery's label verso.
6.5 x 14.5 ins (16 x 37 cms) approx
This original has been sold and is no longer available.
Provenance: from the estate of the 5th Earl Howe, who as Lieutenant Viscount Curzon RNVR, served with the Grand Fleet. Cull is known to have executed several similar commissions for Lord Howe's family (indeed, a further watercolour, ' A Queen Elizabeth Class dreadnought at Sea', is also featured here in Maritime Originals' gallery).
This gentle watercolour of some potentially violent warships looking for a fight is a different but accurate reflection of a side of the Royal Navy’s Great War tasks that was not often portrayed by artists who generally preferred to show the more dramatic actions in which the Grand Fleet was involved. Paintings of ships in action, battle ensigns streaming amidst gun smoke and deeds of daring sell better than scenes of quiet, everyday routine patrolling by the fleet - as the artists well knew.
‘Grand Fleet’ was the all-embracing title assumed by the vast bulk of the Royal Navy’s European based squadrons and flotillas on the outbreak of war in August 1914. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief in waiting, was appointed to relieve Sir George Callaghan as its new commander and Scapa Flow in the Orkneys became the fleet’s main base though progressively squadrons were relocated to other ports and harbours around the coast of Great Britain as the pattern of operations began to evolve. The German main fleet was similarly titled in uncompromisingly grandiose style – The High Seas Fleet (or HSF).
Here, Alma Cull – a recognised master of his subject – has captured the scene with his customary skill and he has painted a sea that is relatively benign, the weather fair though a squall is possibly coming up from astern: the leading battleships are already experiencing light showers it seems although differentiating between rain-laden nimbus clouds and clouds of funnel smoke produced by many dozens of coal burning boilers is not easy! His draughtsmanship of the vessels he portrayed was always of the highest order and enables the cognoscenti to recognise the ships instantly: this watercolour shows a battle squadron of Iron Duke class dreadnoughts being screened by the “maids of all work”, the small but relatively strongly armed and fast torpedo boat destroyers (TBDs) that were an essential accompaniment to any capital ship out at sea. Battle squadrons such as we see here – and there are more battle squadrons on the far horizon behind the Iron Dukes - would have many dozens of such escorts who were there as the nippy, highly manoeuvrable terriers who guarded their slower, more ponderous but massively more heavily armed masters against torpedo attack and the other threats posed to the valuab;e ships of the main battle fleet. Audaciously launched in numbers against the HSF’s heavy units the TBDs with their high speed, unpredictable manoeuvring and armament of threatening torpedoes and guns (albeit small calibre) could cause significant worries to the opposition if unleashed on him. Indeed they could not be ignored by either side and a turn away or a revision of plan was often the requiured reaction. At the height of its strength the Grand Fleet boasted some 350 of these TBDs (the name morphed into the more simple ‘destroyer’ through common usage) and it was the dreamed of command for aspiring, dashing young officers who would often find themselves in their early twenties as the captain of one of these speeding terriers as they crashed and bucked their way through towering seas and drenching spray ‘to engage the enemy more closely’.
But it wasn’t always ‘blowing a bastard’ out there and all is relatively pleasant and benign here. The Grand Fleet is on one of its endless sorties into the North Sea to try and tangle with the opposition and may be this time action will soon be joined. But the actual task of simply ‘keeping the seas’ in all weather and by day and night is always a challenge to any navy. Constantly battling the elements, avoiding collision with close by units (invariably hard to see from a wind torn, spray filled bridge and with no steaming or upper deck lights to mark them out at night), stokers shovelling and trimming down below in impossibly hot and humid boiler rooms and with the prospect of being scalded and then entombed with little warning if action is joined and things go badly; gun and torpedo crews and upper deck teams exposed to near freezing green seas threatening to sweep them over the side as these plucky little ships sped and lurched their way about their tasks. Even when you were off watch it was pretty good hell down below: the perpetual rolling and pitching of the ship, with crashing shudders as she buried her bows in a particularly ‘big one', seawater leaks from the upper deck everywhere, everything streaming with damp; clothing, sick - all swilling around on the slippery messdeck…. Primitive cooking arrangements, clothing permanently salty and wet - conditions in the winter months in these little ships were very grim, and death by enemy shellfire, mine, collision – was an ever present possibility and an unseen nightmare for those whose duties required them to be below deck where they were effectively blind to the action going on around them. Whilst the horrors of trench warfare must have been truly ghastly, of course, spare a thought too for the naval men of the two opposing fleets who faced different but dangerous and dreadful conditions too: the very art of surviving hour by hour in hostile sea and weather conditions and with the imminence of action never far, cannot have been pleasant. Three battle cruisers each with ships’ companies of some 2,000 simply blew up in seconds in the Jutland action for example – survivors were never more than half a dozen from each ship.