The Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses is the best known natural history book John Newbery issued–not because its illustrations were so fine, but because the majority were copied from out-of-date seventeenth-century sources like Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts (1659) and Francis Willughby’s Ornithology (1674). Sometimes owners colored them with more artistic verve than accuracy…
The handful of illustrations at the end are almost never mentioned because they have nothing to do with natural history. Master Tommy and Miss Polly are shown “taking the air” in their coach in one and dancing a minuet in another. Mother Bunch standing outside her cottage under the hill, where she sells cheesecakes. A natural philosopher observes the night sky through a telescope, while a student reads as he walks through the countryside.
The first one in the group, that of the sinking man-of-war Victory, had never caught my eye until last week. It suddenly occurred to me that there are illustrations of shipwrecks everywhere in eighteenth-century children’s books–ships leaving ports, ships in full sail, ships in distress, ships breaking up on the rocks. Whoever decided to include the illustration of the Victory took it for granted that little readers were interested in shipwrecks. If they didn’t understand the reference, they would ask someone older who explain it to them. Not having brothers who went to sea like Jane Austen, I would have to figure it out for myself.
Could it refer to the most famous ship of the line bearing that name, the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, where the hero met his death in 1805. The information I found suggested it had to be another ship. Nelson’s Victory was not launched until 1765 and The Pretty Book of Pictures was first published in 1752. It’s not impossible that this block was added in later editions, but I wasn’t able to confirm that hypothesis. The Rothschild catalog doesn’t describe the illustrations in the 1752 edition and and the National Library of Scotland has not digitized its second edition of 1754. Before Nelson, the Victory was Keppel’s flagship in the Battle of Ushant in 1778 and Jervis’s in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797. This ship, which saw so much action was never sunk: since 1923 she has been drydocked in Portsmouth, the oldest naval ship still in commission, with 245 years’ of service.
Nelson’s Victory, I discovered, was the sixth of her name in the Royal Navy and there is a story that the sailors, being a superstitious lot, thought it would be unlucky to give her that name. The Victory depicted in the Pretty Book of Pictures, had to be the fifth. A 100-gun first-rate ship of the line launched in 1737, she was the flagship of the navy squadron charged with protecting the Channel waters in the 1740s. In the War of the Austrian Succession, she was Admiral Sir John Balchen’s flagship during the blockade of Tagus in Spain. When Balchen’s fleet reached the Channel in early October, a storm scattered the ships before they reached port. The Victory was separated from the rest and was believed to have gone down at Black Rock in the Casquets in the Channel Islands on October 4, 1744. The design with sides rather high for the draft of her hull were said to have made her unstable in heavy or rough weather. All 1100 men on board were lost, making it the worst disaster in British naval history.
Naval histories quickly incorporated accounts of the tragedy. George Berkeley and Sir John Hill’s The naval history of Britain, from the earliest periods of which
there are accounts in history, to the conclusion of the year M.DCC.LVI (1756) solemnly reported “Parts of the wreck were found by the people of Alderney, who also gave the account that they heard the discharges of near 100 guns in the Night, Signals of Distress.” It was a natural subject for a dramatic marine painting like the one by Peter Monamy to the left. Allusions to the disaster turn up in contemporary literature. A correspondent with The Wise Woman in Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator (1746) inadvertently reveals what a self-absorbed creature she is by complaining that the sensible young man courting her reflected upon the tragedy of the Victory. If he must bring up the subject of the sea, she says peevishly, he ought to compare her to Venus rising out of it!
Many attempts over the next two hundred and sixty years were made to find the HMS Victory and in May 2008 Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration succeeded in finding the wreck in over 300 feet of water a good 80 kilometers past the Casquets. Two of her brass cannons were salvaged and are on display in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Because of the complexity of maritime law regarding salvage, it is unclear if and when the wreck will be raised from the seabed.