The year is 1800 and Britain is at war with Denmark. A squadron of ships under the command of Rear Admiral Richard Bolitho is dispatched to the Baltic to blockade the enemy fleet. Here, we see the deck of his 74-gun flagship, Benbow, as he embarks on the mission. The weather is thick. Another 74 looms ahead, barely visible through the cold, wind-driven rain and the spray from a confused, choppy sea.
Bolitho is a fictional character in a series of historical novels written by Douglas Reeman under the pseudonym Alexander Kent, which are centered around the exploits of the Royal Navy. Geoffrey Huband’s painting became the jacket illustration for The Inshore Squadron, book number 15 in the series. Says Huband: “I have always loved narrative in a painting.”
Huband’s depiction of the fury of the Baltic Sea in winter takes us to a place where few dare go. “These blockade duties were unrelenting in all weathers,” says the 75-year-old British artist, noting that HMS Anson, returning from a blockade mission in 1807, was wrecked near his coastal Cornwall home.
“In this work I am pleased with the momentary story being told and the atmosphere created; the dynamics of the two ships, one barely visible in the swell of the ocean; the inhospitable nature of the wet, leaning deck, and an impression of the wind howling through almost-bare spars.”
Huband began with a series of sketches, one image eventually emerging to become the basis of the composition. He used ship plans and illustrations for accuracy. “By the time it gets to canvas, I have a reasonable idea of how I want the work to look,” he says. “But I also try to be as spontaneous as possible in order to allow happy accidents to occur.”
With an artist’s sense of humor, he adds, “I was most happy that I didn’t have to go back and paint anything again.”
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.