This unique period painting of the War of 1812’s Battle of Boston Harbor utilizes a layered reverse glass technique to depict one of the most famous sea battles in American and British Naval History- American ship U.S.S. CHESAPEAKE in the thick of combat alongside Britain’s H.M.S. SHANNON. Full details on the battle are below.
This painting is unique among Isiah Whyte’s paintings for a number of reasons. First, all of the other surviving examples of Whyte’s works are ship’s portraits of American war vessels, this is the only battle scene known to exist. It is also his only known double pane reverse glass painting, something that makes it not only rare for the artist but also among reverse glass paintings in general, most are single pane. Finally, all of his glass works have the sails in black silhouette; this is the only example of his glass work in full color and detail.
The first pane includes the CHESAPEAKE and an overlay of darker green tones in the sea along with the black and gilt églomisé painted mat. The second pane depicts the SHANNON and a lighter blue toned sea. Both glass plates sit above a softly painted watercolor background on paper. Whyte left clever lightly or unpainted areas in the front panel, allowing the lower panel details to show through, a technique which gives the work a great deal of depth and vitality.
This layering technique creates a striking image of the two ships firing their cannon broadsides at close range, the smoke so thick that each ship can hardly see the other. The fighting crew of CHESAPEAKE covers the deck while a few others stand on yardarms high above to scout the SHANNON’s condition and adjust sails.
As is typical of Whyte’s works, the painting is signed on a glass panel on the reverse painted side, so when looking at the painting the signature appears backward. We have reversed it in one of our photos for ease of reading on our website.
The reversed photo also shows CHESAPEAKE’s flag; the ship was known to have entered this battle sailing a white flag adorned with the motto of the War of 1812, “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights”.
The War of 1812 was fought over attempted British trade restrictions between the United States and France. Britain and France were already engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, and the massive British Navy tried at every turn to maintain their dominance over the seas. Their 600 ships required 140,000 sailors to crew, so the British took to raiding American ships, seizing cargoes and impressing their crews into service aboard Royal Naval vessels. British ships were even known to lie in wait outside American ports raiding American ships in U.S. territorial waters. Sailor’s Rights referred to the right of U.S. sailors to avoid forced impressment and to be recognized as citizens of a sovereign nation, who could not be forced to serve in the Navy of another country.
The Battle of Boston Harbor
On the afternoon of June 1, 1813 the U.S.S. CHESAPEAKE sailed out of Boston to meet the waiting H.M.S. SHANNON. Although a British victory, by a supreme irony, the Americans would emerge from the defeat with the greater benefit. It was in this battle that gallant young American Commander James Lawrence spoke the immortal words "Don't Give Up The Ship" as he lay mortally wounded on CHESAPEAKE’s deck. This famous phrase infused the fledgling U.S. Navy with an even more vigorous determination to fight and win.
The battle was brief but intense. In about fifteen minutes, 252 men were killed or wounded between the two sides, a large number of casualties for such a conflict. Though the ships were evenly matched, CHESAPEAKE’s crew was primarily made up of men new to the ship, who, while well trained, had had little time to drill together or with Captain Lawrence, also new to the ship. In contrast, SHANNON’s Commander, Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was an expert in naval gunnery who had modified his cannons for greater aim and maneuverability and then spent a long voyage with his crew training them to fire on key targets to quickly disable opposing ships.
CHESAPEAKE took more serious hits in their early exchanges of cannon fire, the fatal blow being the loss of her ship’s wheel. With no way to maneuver, the wind and waves carried CHESAPEAKE into SHANNON’s starboard side where she took another barrage of heavy fire before the British crew lashed the two ships together. When the smoke cleared, Broke gave the command to board CHESAPEAKE.
After taking relentless fire across his decks, Captain Lawrence remained the only officer on CHESAPEAKE’s quarterdeck, his lieutenants wounded below. Lawrence also gave the order to board and the two crews met in hand to hand combat- still trading cannon fire from below and musket fire from on deck while sailors raised swords and charged.
By all accounts both sides fought bravely and with distinction. Lawrence was hit in the first wave of fire by the British coming aboard, and it was while members of his crew carried him below that he would give the infamous order, "Tell the men to fire faster! Don't give up the ship!"
Lawrence’s last command to his crew became a rallying cry for the American Navy throughout the war. Later, Lawrence’s peer, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry would take his friend’s words and emblazon them on his battle flag, winning the day at the Battle of Lake Erie, a significant turning point to the overall American victory. The motto has inspired U.S. Naval sailors from that time until today and Perry’s original flag is on display at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Captain Broke led the charge onto CHESAPEAKE and in the battle to follow would also sustain a serious injury and, while he survived and went on to receive many honors for this victory, he would never again serve at sea.
This rare and unique painting depicts a key battle in America’s early history to reaffirm its status as an independent nation from Britain. Painted in Boston and soon after the battle, this is a piece of history from those who witnessed and recorded the events firsthand.
first name :