No.34 Dover-Calais

“Nearly Swampt”

Inspired by Turner’s maritime paintings, the theme this week is the Dover-Calais crossing. To set the scene, please do have a look at the National Gallery’s Calais Pier (1803).

In the centre of the action is a French fishing vessel with a white sail putting out in a boisterous sea, looking as if it is about to collide with the English packet (regular ferry service for passengers and mails) coming in, crammed to the gills with passengers, the Union Jack wound round itself in the gale. It all looks quite perilous, with a bit of artistic licence allowed – it’s not so perilous that a stream of little fishing vessels can’t put out to sea! This painting is partially based on a number of Turner’s sketches which survive from 1802, his first journey abroad, one of which notes that he was “nearly swampt” on arrival at Calais.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant passage (the weather, as Turner shows, being somewhat rough that week in July 1802) and it was probably longer than the quick voyage of 3.5 hours recorded by Joseph Farington, Turner’s fellow artist, the following month. (Compare 90 minutes today.)

Occasionally it genuinely was dangerous: we have 4 recorded instances of a Dover-Calais vessel being lost at Dover between 1770 and 1820, and there would probably have been more, but for the interruption of the service during an international dispute with a certain M. Bonaparte in the latter part of that period! By coincidence, there was actually an incident in the year of Turner’s voyage, 1802, but in the reverse direction. The Flèche French packet, while attempting to enter Dover, ‘mistook the stern head for the entrance to the harbour and ran on shore.’ In 1820, the Flora ‘missed stays’ in a ‘heavy gale at S by W’ while leaving Dover. It sounds as if there was a bit of a scramble to get ashore, but everyone did so before the ship went to pieces.

I wonder if they were ‘nearly swampt’ too?

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