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Captain Watson's travels in America : the sketchbooks and diary of Joshua Rowley Watson, 1772-1818 /
Kathleen A. Foster ; commentaries on the plates by Kenneth Finkel.
Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c1997.
xii, 372 p. : ill., maps ; 23 x 29 cm.
0812233840 (alk. paper)
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added author
Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c1997.
0812233840 (alk. paper)
general note
"A Barra Foundation book."
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [359]-363) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Raised in the Navy, 1772-1790

AT THE AGE OF NINE--perhaps--Joshua Rowley Watson went to sea with His Majesty's navy, serving in the Caribbean as "Captain's servant" on the ship Resource, under Bartholomew S. Rowley. Admiralty records show his sudden appearance on board in June 1781 near Jamaica; sixteen months later he followed his captain to another ship, Diamond, where he served until August 1783. It was not unusual for boys to join the service at such an age, to learn a trade or make an early start on the six years of sea duty required of those applying for a lieutenant's commission.

Then again, Watson was probably not on board. A letter from his father, Captain Thomas Watson, who was indeed stationed in the Caribbean in February 1780, to his mother-in-law, Mary Rundle Burges, suggests that young "Rowley" was at home in England all this time, developing the skills of an artist rather than those of a sailor. Thomas asked Mary, who had raised the boy after the death of his mother in 1774, to "put Rowley to a Boarding School," it being the right and "propper time for him to make a beginning." Captain Watson suggested his seven-year-old son commence French lessons and "as he has a turn for drawing let him likewise be instructed in it." His emphasis throughout this letter on the paramount importance of his children's education must have taken on the character of a last will, for Thomas Watson died a hero three months later in the attack on the French at St. Lucia. Probably, his grandmother obeyed these instructions and sent young "Rowley" off to school, not to sea.

The contradictory histories suggested by these documents reveal the friendly network of deceit and support among naval families that quickly encircled the orphaned Rowley after his father's death. Captain Watson's will, penned on board HMS Conqueror in anticipation of battle on 10 May 1780, asked that his "young friend Lieut. Bart Rowley" take notice of his child "in remembrance of me," "should my little son chuse the Navy." Lieutenant Rowley, as Thomas Watson foresaw, was destined to be a powerful sponsor. Son of Vice Admiral Sir Joshua Rowley (1730-90) and grandson of Admiral Sir William Rowley (1690-1768), who had each supported Thomas Watson's career, young B. S. Rowley rose to the rank of Admiral of the Blue before his death in 1811. Honoring his friend's last request, Rowley signed young Joshua Rowley (his father's namesake) on to the Resource's books along with seven other boys, including his own nephew, as soon as he won his captain's post, nine months later. Thanks to this ruse, Joshua began to earn sea time "on paper," gaining a head start on his career, should he later "chuse the Navy."

By the same logic, Watson was introduced into the Admiralty's records as being born 5 October 1770, and he presented an affidavit to that effect, signed by the parish minister, when he applied for his lieutenant's examination in 1790. In fact, his own biographical memorandum declares his birthdate as 17 April 1772. This additional deceit allowed Watson to apply for the examination when he was only eighteen years old, instead of waiting until the usual age of twenty. As young as he was, Watson needed some of his "paper" sea time to show the six years of sea duty needed to qualify for the test. By the time he won his lieutenant's commission in 1793, he had served another year at sea and attained the actual age of 21 (indicating, perhaps, some official recognition of the truth), but the alacrity of his appointment after reaching that age suggests seniority gained by early passage of the examination.

Such bureaucratic intrigues may have gained Watson little, but they demonstrate the power, early in his life, of the supportive culture of the naval community. These maneuvers also illustrate the role of family connections within the navy's system of patronage or "interest." Traditionally, the navy drew almost forty percent of its officers from the aristocracy and landed gentry; in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, another half came from the professional classes, and half of those came from families with a tradition of naval service. Thomas Watson, the only son of the Reverend William Watson (1708?-78), Rector of Ennis in County Clare, Ireland, had been raised with expectations of a career in "Law, Physic or Divinity but he did not like either, & gave preference to the Navy, into which service he entered under the auspices of the Late Sir William Rowley." Lacking great wealth, social position, or a naval background, Thomas Watson had no interest to bring to bear on the Admiralty until Rowley began to look after his career. From his eminence as Vice Admiral of England and Lord of the Admiralty, Sir William Rowley could do a lot for his great-nephew, and Thomas Watson gratefully remembered him as his "benefactor." He accompanied the fleet of Rowley's son, (then) Rear Admiral Joshua Rowley, to the West Indies, and was promoted twice in his service, eventually commanding the Admiral's flagship, Conqueror. Thomas Watson proved a brave and loyal member of Rowley's "following"--to use the contemporary term that described younger officers brought along under the patronage of senior captains and flag officers. Naturally, he hoped his son "Rowley" would enjoy the continuing sponsorship of this influential family. In the navy, the selective favor of superiors brought opportunity and promotion; an absence of such interest could stall advancement more effectively than a lack of merit. Rowley interest shone upon J. R. Watson for at least the first six years of his career, consolidating a naval dynasty in the Watson family that would endure for generations.

Whatever the Rowleys failed to supply by way of influence was more than adequately filled by the family network commanded by Thomas Watson's mother-in-law, Mary Rundle Burges, whose father, grandfather, husband, brother, and son were all Devonshire sea captains. By the efforts of the Burges clan, Joshua was raised with a view to the sea, despite the early loss of both parents. Thomas Watson's gallant death made him one of the most memorable citizens in the history of Topsham, the small market town on the River Exe, between Exeter and the channel coast, where the Burges family was based. Rowley was born in Topsham, and two years later his mother was buried there.

His father's death delivered young Watson into the guardianship of the family's other naval hero, his mother's brother, Richard Rundle Burges (fig. 4), who also prospered in the service of Joshua Rowley. Rising to the rank of commander just two years after Thomas Watson's death, Burges was a model officer "of strictest honour and integrity." These qualities "added to a frank and manly deportment and gentleman-like and conciliatory manner made him respected by all who had the pleasure of knowing him." Uncle Richard joined grandmother Mary to honor the instructions in Thomas Watson's last letter. The boy had been living with Mary Burges in London and at Ewell, near Epsom in Surrey. Per his father's wish, he was enrolled at Auchins Academy, Ewell, when he was eight; ostensibly sailing off Jamaica with Rowley's fleet, he probably began drawing classes at this school or with a drawing master from nearby London.

Art classes notwithstanding, Watson followed his father and all his mother's relations into the navy by the time he was eleven, for in 1783 he entered the Maritime School, Paradise Row, Chelsea, an institution opened in 1778 "with a view to qualify scholars to serve as officers in the Royal Navy." Designed with boys like Watson in mind, the school gave half the places in every entering class to the sons of sea officers, particularly the orphans of men fallen in battle (fig. 5). The managers and benefactors of the Maritime School recognized the importance of naval families as sources for the increasingly professionalized officer class. Loyal and already accultured, boys from such families could not always afford the expense of "public school" education, however, and the school met their needs with scholarships for a quarter of every new class.

Anticipating the commencement of sea service at about the age of thirteen, the boys entered the school at about age eleven, and spent two or three years studying under masters who taught language and writing, navigation and mathematics, small arms and artillery, and--twice a week between three and six--"drawing according to nature, and surveying coasts, &c. as best adapted to service at sea." New students were read a statement of purpose from the manual of rules and regulations that threw an even more practical light on this art training:

We learn to draw, as a necessary appendage to our education; and the greater proficients we are, the more we are assured we shall recommend ourselves, when we go to sea, to the kindness and regard of our commanders, who will promote us the sooner.

Additional graces in the curriculum prepared Watson for gentlemanly social and professional occasions: in a letter to "Mama" (grandmother Burges) from this period Watson describes classes in "dansing" and "fensing" as well.

After completing his studies at the Maritime School, followed by a "finishing" trip to France in 1786, Watson really did go to sea. Now fourteen years old and, as his father hoped, made "fitter for life's lot" by a gentlemanly education, he appeared again on the Admiralty's registers as Captain's servant, this time quite logically under the command of his uncle Richard. He joined HMS Savage at Woolwich in July of 1786 and was promoted to "able seaman" and "midshipman" within six months--a typical rank for a boy of his age and expectations.

Watson sailed for three years with his uncle on the Savage, a small sixteen-gun sloop patrolling shipping and occasionally pressing sailors along the coasts of the English Channel, western Scotland, and eastern Ireland. In August 1789 the ship received a new commander, and Watson was transferred to another sloop, the Porcupine, commanded by yet another Rowley family cousin, George Martin. By Christmas 1790, he felt ready to apply for his lieutenant's examination. Presenting his ship journals and letters from his commanding officers testifying to his "Sobriety, Diligence and Qualifications of an Able Seaman," Watson proved that he could "Splice, Knot, Reef a sail, work a ship in sailing, shift his Tides, Keep a Reckoning of a Ship's Way by Plane Sailing and Mercator; Observe by Sun or Star, and find the Variations of the Compass." On 5 January 1791 he was certified.

An Officer's Life During the Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815

It was a promising time to begin an officer's career in the British navy, although Watson must have found it dull at first. Exactly two years after his certification the first hostilities with France inaugurated a period of more than two decades of intense naval warfare all across the globe. A sea power for two centuries, Britain would rise to undisputed superiority during this era, drawing on all those willing and able to lead her navy. In the lull before the Napoleonic storm, Watson was called to duty on HMS Hannibal without an officer's commission, biding his time in and around Portsmouth and Plymouth for eight months. The Hannibal, commanded by Captain (later Admiral) John Colpoys, was a much newer and larger seventy-four-gun ship than Watson had known, but not much was stirring on the channel station. In a moment of calm at Spithead navy yard, Watson drew his ship in pen and ink (fig. 6) in a sketchbook that he would use occasionally until 1815. Competent and informative, if not graceful, this earliest extant dated drawing shows how the nineteen-year-old Watson had profited from--and was limited by--his early drawing classes. His chance to practice and improve increased in October 1791, when he returned home to Exeter and London, still waiting for an officer's commission. Off duty for more than a year, Watson filled his time with a trip to Jamaica in late 1791; by the early summer of 1792, he was back in London. He would not have to wait much longer.

Ten days after Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris in January 1793, and the very day France declared war on Great Britain, Watson was called on board Rear Admiral Lord Alan Gardner's massive flagship, HMS Queen, a ninety-eight-gun ship of the line sailing with a fleet of twelve for Prince Rupert's Bay on the island of Dominica. Committed to an older policy of disrupting enemy shipping and assaulting colonial posts, the British navy was flung across the Atlantic to harass French holdings in the Caribbean. The West Indies were the smallest station for both of the major powers and a muddle of strategy and logistics that drained the more critical European campaigns. But for those interested in glory, prize money, and promotion, the islands were full of opportunity. Watson's first sponsor, Captain B. S. Rowley, captured one French ship off Jamaica in April--the first prize taken in the war--and two more in November, off San Domingo. Officers were in demand, and Watson served on the station only six months before winning his lieutenant's commission.

Apart from independent and spontaneous maneuvers, the navy was needed to back up troop landings, such as the intervention in Martinique's rebellion early in 1794, and Watson "distinguished himself" on shore during operations in March and April that won the island. Guadeloupe, Tobago, and St. Lucia soon fell to the British too, but Guadeloupe was lost again in June, and St. Lucia returned to the French by accord in 1795. Pawns in the imperial war game, these islands would all change hands repeatedly in battle and treaty during the next two decades. Watson, who had lost his father in St. Lucia fourteen years earlier on a similar campaign, and who would return to Guadeloupe in 1810 for another "hundred days" of sovereignty, must have understood--perhaps with some bitterness or cynicism--the strategic importance of these sugar islands and their shipping lanes.

The British blockade of the Channel ports was extended late in 1794 to include the coast of Holland, now under French control, and naval resources were reallocated to stretch across this new front. Watson, who had returned to Portsmouth in September, found himself--like Rear Admiral Gardner--reassigned to the channel station in November. As first lieutenant on HMS Lively, a brand new thirty-two-gun ship out of Portsmouth commanded by George, Lord (Viscount) Garlies and then George Burlton, Watson played a major part in the capture of the eighteen-gun French sloop L'Espion off Brest on 2 March 1795 and the thirty-two-gun frigate Tourterelle off Ushant on 13 March. Their first prize, L'Espion, surrendered without a fight, but the larger Tourterelle fired first and was captured after a ninety-minute struggle. Taking prisoners on board, they "found the Prize very much Cut and all her masts wounded; took her in tow [and] found our Sails and Rigging very much cut and burnt by his hot shot." As was customary after such triumphs, the captain and first lieutenant--Burlton and Watson--both earned "hero promotions" along with a medal and a percentage of the prize money.

Within two days of the second engagement, Watson rose to the rank of commander and was given charge of L'Espion, a ship that was sound enough to enter the British service as The Spy. Watson supervised her refitting at Plymouth that summer, when he sketched her in his notebook along with a drawing of the wounded Lively and her other prize, La Tourterelle. In October he turned over The Spy to a more senior captain, but for his efforts he was given command of another sixteen-gun sloop captured the year before, La Trompeuse (fig. 7), whose captain had suddenly died. At last awarded his own ship, Watson sailed her into active service off the coasts of Ireland and Wales in November 1795.

Glamorous assignments and sleek vessels were rarely the lot of young commanders, and Watson soon got trouble from La Trompeuse. "Vessel very leaky & people very sickly," he reported, no more than two weeks out. But Watson depicted her gallantly in his watercolor, and bravely she cruised the Irish Station and the channel until returning to Portsmouth for repairs in April 1796. In June, she set out again for the southern coast of Ireland, where Watson witnessed the encounter between HMS Unicorn and the captured French frigate La Tribune. After sketching a fiery midnight view of the two ships locked in battle, he painted the prize ship in full sail, bearing the victor's flag above her own (see fig. 33).

Misfortune struck Watson just eight months into his first command. On 15 July La Trompeuse ran aground attempting to escape the lower cove of Kinsale harbor in an ebb tide. Four days later she was declared a loss "on the Farmer Rock, Kinsale." The subsequent court-martial acquitted Watson and his crew of any wrongdoing or incompetence; the local pilot, who was on board at the time, took blame for failing to advise or warn the young commander effectively. Seeking to mitigate the sense of guilt that nonetheless plagued Watson, his superiors bestowed commendations on him for the rescue of all crewmen and his "indefatigable" efforts to salvage the stores on board, despite heavy weather. He returned home for another, drearier wait.

The "Disaster" of La Trompeuse, as Watson described it in his own report, left him out of naval action just before the French fleet sailed toward his station in December 1796 on a mission to "liberate" Ireland. The invasion disintegrated in the stormy seas off Cork, and Watson awaited further news at home ("unemployed--London--Bath--Devonshire," according to family records) through the end of 1796 and most of 1797. While Watson was off duty in April and May, the seamen at the major navy yards of Spithead (off Portsmouth), Plymouth, Sheerness, and the Nore (at the mouth of the Thames) mutinied, refusing to sail against the French until conditions improved. The mutineers were finally subdued in June, and the navy rallied to meet another enemy fleet threatening Ireland.

Intercepting the Batavian (Dutch) forces before their rendezvous with the French fleet, the British navy fought the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October 1797. The victory exhilarated Britain but probably brought mixed emotions to Watson: sidelined himself, he learned of his uncle's "glorious" death in action. Captain Burges's valiant efforts at the helm of HMS Ardent that day earned him the epithet "The Hero of Camperdown." A grateful nation remembers him still in Thomas Banks' grand and "irresistibly comic" neoclassical monument in Saint Paul's Cathedral (fig. 8). The loss of a guardian and mentor, combined with his own sense of failure and the larger malaise of the navy, made 1796-97 a low point in Watson's life.

The following year--1798--would be different. By no coincidence, a month after his uncle's death Watson was named commander of La Legere, a twenty-four-gun French prize captured in 1796. He owed the timing of this appointment entirely to Burges family "interest." Watson's sixty-six-year-old grandmother went into action following Camperdown, seeking to claim her son's pension benefits and her grandson's destiny as the dynasty's next captain. His cousin remembered that "Upon hearing that orders were going off for the Legere to sail for the West Indies," Mary Rundle Burges

immediately though she was ill in bed of the gout ... got up and had herself carried to the Admiralty where her appearance and representations had such an effect upon Lord [George John] Spencer as in addition to Watson's real claims which certainly were great ones--to draw forth a promise that he should be made [Captain] before he went. She was not satisfied however but renewed her applications till she found his name actually entered as Post Captain.

Convinced that Watson otherwise would not have won this promotion until after he returned to service, Mary Burges "found the Admiralty like the Kingdom of Heaven suffered violence and that the violent took it by storm."

Mary was in high spirits following her conquest of the First Lord of the Admiralty, but Watson's tenure on the Legere proved brief. Once again he was put in charge of the tedious repair and refitting that occupied so much of the time of any vessel on active service. In January 1798 he also assumed command of the Plymouth division of gun boats--about fifteen ships, each with twelve guns and approximately fifty men. Finally, on 23 March, his captain's commission became official. Almost immediately, Watson was directed to sail the Legere to Cork and turn her over to a new commander. If he returned to England in expectation of a more important post, his hopes were not soon realized. As with his lieutenancy, Watson had to endure for a time the most-junior position on the Captain's seniority listing, which ruled the assignment of new commands. With about 650 ships in service (not counting those in mothballs, under construction, or awaiting extensive repair), there were usually more captains and commanders than posts available. Merit and interest, with a measure of good fortune, won advancement to the rank of captain, but after that, seniority held sway. Watson returned from Ireland in April 1798 to begin what would be a long wait.

The time passed pleasantly. While Nelson was destroying Napoleon's navy off the coast of Egypt and yet another French fleet fruitlessly prepared to invade rebellious Ireland, Watson was courting pretty Mary Manley (fig. 9), who was barely eighteen when they mar-

Copyright © 1997 The Barra Foundation. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1998-04-01:
This handsome production, with essays by Foster (curator of 19th- and 20th-century art, Indiana University Art Museum) and commentaries on the plates by Kenneth Finkel (program officer in arts and culture, William Penn Foundation, and former curator of prints and photographs, Library Company of Philadelphia), will be of interest to many constituencies. It gives a detailed view of life in early-19th-century Philadelphia (Watson, a British naval captain, spent much of his American sojourn among friends on the outskirts of Philadelphia). It is the first proper and full-length introduction to the life and works of an amateur artist whose watercolors are as delicate and attractive as those of any professional artist. And it also functions as a study of early landscape painting in America, of the first tentative steps on landscape art that foreshadowed the Hudson River School's rise and enormous success at midcentury. The book is meticulously researched and documented, and it displays a wealth of interdisciplinary knowledge (on the part of both Foster and Finkel) that is becoming rare in this age of specialization. More than 100 illustrations, 18 of them in color. Highly recommended. M. W. Sullivan Villanova University
This item was reviewed in:
Reference & Research Book News, February 1998
Choice, April 1998
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Discovering Captain Watsonp. 3
Chronology: The Life and Travels of Joshua Rowley Watsonp. 11
Watson's World
Raised in the Navy, 1772-1790p. 15
An Officer's Life During the Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815p. 18
The American Trip, 1816-1817p. 30
American Family and Friendsp. 31
Philadelphiap. 38
Eaglesfield: A Gentleman's Villa on the Schuylkillp. 40
Travels in the United Statesp. 49
Watson's American Diaryp. 56
Selections from Watson's American Sketchbooks
Introductionp. 67
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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