Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting

This was the first major exhibition to survey the tradition of marine painting that was inextricably linked to Britain’s rise to prominence as a maritime and imperial power, and to position the genre at the heart of the burgeoning British art world of the eighteenth century.

The demand for marine paintings—and the prints made after them—in the eighteenth century, from ship launches to shipwrecks, naval battles to serene coastal views, reflected Britain’s absolute dependence on the sea. In an age when Britain claimed to rule the waves, marine paintings found a new importance and helped the island nation tell its stories of triumph and disaster.

Arranged in thematic sections within a broadly chronological framework, Spreading Canvas spanned the period between the arrival in Greenwich of the Dutch marine painters Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger, in the early 1670s, and J. M. W. Turner’s first responses to the Battle of Trafalgar, displayed at his gallery in 1806. Featuring works by artists such as Peter Monamy, Samuel Scott, Dominic Serres, and Nicholas Pocock, the exhibition contended that the marine painters who created images of the sea and shipping in eighteenth-century Britain were more than mere stylistic inheritors of a Dutch seventeenth-century tradition; rather, they forged a uniquely British approach to their subject.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the Center, Spreading Canvas was augmented by spectacular loans from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, and other private and institutional collections. The exhibition included ship models, prints, paintings, sketchbooks, and letters, in order to reconstruct the full array of representational modes that were deployed throughout the century to represent the maritime exploits of the nation. Such variety also reflects the fact that marine paintings, and the artists who produced them, were fully embedded in the thriving and cosmopolitan artistic sphere of the period.

By including examples of the sketches, plans, and textual accounts that underlay the finished works, Spreading Canvas also revealed the processes through which marine painters constructed depictions of highly complex events that had taken place at great physical and temporal distances. But, far from functioning merely as skillful reportage, marine painting responded to and helped to shape Britain’s role on the global stage. Indeed, this exhibition demonstrated that marine painting was, from the age of tapestries to the advent of the modern panorama, both ubiquitous and fundamentally relevant to eighteenth-century British art and culture.

Interactive site

To learn more about the sites and journeys represented in this exhibition, view an interactive map of “Maritime Locations in Spreading Canvas.”


Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting was organized by the Yale Center for British Art in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, and curated by Eleanor Hughes, Deputy Director for Art & Program at the Walters Art Museum. The organizing curator at the Center was Matthew Hargraves, Chief Curator of Art Collections and Head of Collections Information and Access.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated book, edited by Eleanor Hughes, with essays by Hughes, Richard Johns, Geoff Quilley, Christine Riding, and Catherine Roach, and contributions by Sophie Lynford, John McAleer, and Pieter van der Merwe. The volume was published by the Center in association with Yale University Press.

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.

Top image
Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole

Extended reading

Cover, Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting

Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting

Edited by Eleanor Hughes

Read more Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting