Kurt Johnson

Red bulwarks

Does anyone know when the practice of painting bulwarks red began? Would it be appropriate for ships during the Armada?

 

Kurt

 

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Kurt,

I don’t know of any hard evidence for the start of this practice.  The earliest example of which I am aware is the NMM’s model of Boyne (1692), built by the master shipwright himself, which does have red bulwarks.

 

Research on the Mary Rose (sunk 1545) has shown a few traces of paint on the external surfaces of one or two fragments, but nothing on internal surfaces.  Similarly, there is considerable evidence of paint remaining on the many carvings of the Wasa (1628) but, except for mouldings in the captain’s cabin, there is no mention of paint inside the hull.  One of the guide books states “Traces of paint have also been found on certain furnishings, but none anywhere on the hull.  Tar and linseed oil seem the only things to have been applied to that.”

 

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course.  However, a near-contemporary panting of the Battle of Gravelines (August, 1588) does show the inner bulwarks of several vessels, none of which seem to carry a predominantly red colour:

 

gravelines.jpg.3fe0d25e8fc61cce15068b5a7208d431.jpg

 

My gut reaction is that painting the inner bulwarks probably began in the mid-seventeenth century.  For anything earlier than that, I suggest that it would be safer to leave the bulwarks in a natural wood colour.

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There is, somewhere here on MSW, some pretty good discussion on the evolution and history of pigments.  As i recall, which is in itself of dubious value, red was not a very common pigment until the 18th century, and even then, when looking at carpenter's stores, not abundant as compared to other pigments. 

 

Ochre is the colloquial term used by archaeologists to describe an earth or rock containing red or yellow oxides, most commonly hydroxides of iron. Red ochres typically consist of iron oxides (Fe2O3) derived from hematites (from the Greek word for “blood-like”) and other iron-rich rocks. Red ochres are relatively common in natural geological and soil formations, with archeological evidence of use since more than 30,000 years ago. 

 

Use as a pigment for ships is less tangible, surprisingly, than other uses.  It would require fairly regular updating as the pigments and binders of the period were rather impermanent.  It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the French developed a method for artificially producing a similar red pigment.

 

It may be of some interest to take a look at recent research concerning the HMS Victory where they have determined that it was not painted red in the Orlop, but rather the flats of the deck (deck referring to the level of the vessel, and flat the surface trod upon) was most likely unpainted, while the bulwarks (walls) were more likely a lighter shade (quite possibly whitewashed).  See Goodwin, Peter G. 2013. “The Application and Scheme of Paintworks in British Men-of-War in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” The Mariner’s Mirror 99 (3): 287–300. doi:10.1080/00253359.2013.815993 for a very interesting analysis by one of the top living experts on the Victory.

 

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At this point I agree with John.  The Vasa 1628 per Fred Hocker, Director of Vasa Research, stated May 8, 2006: "The interior of the bulwarks seems to have been unpainted, but may have been tarred".  That was reported to Scottie Dayton, Contributing Editor, Ships in Scale, May/June 2006.  (That report also contains lots of other useful info on the Vasa.)

 

"The Great Age of Sail" by Kemp & Ormond, plate 3 shows a pointing of an engagement between the English fleet and the Spanish Armada, 1588, unknown artist.  One of the Spanish ships on the left side of the painting suggests a red interior bulwark, but it might be just the railing and an arming cloth.  Sorry, I don't have a scanner.  Bulkheads at the breaks of the decks were commonly red or red plus other colors as is depicted by Kemp & Ormond.  The painting above also shows the bulkheads being predominately red.

 

Without additional research Kurt, you could apply some red to some of the Spanish Ships 1588 but English ships maybe not, just tarred wood would be the safer bet.

 

Duff  

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Thanks guys, I kinda had my doubts, but I couldn't remember seeing anything anywhere that suggested that the practice had begun. Now I'm more convinced it hadn't.

 

Kurt

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No, its not appropriate for ships of the Armada.  Red bulwarks were a mid to late 17th century innovation, which arose in small ways before enrolling the entire bulwark.  The oldest examples all appear to be English, but this may be an artifact of surviving evidence.  

 

On the same vein, red gunport lids are also a 17th century thing.  They are on the Wasa (1628) and might be in the Livro de Tracas de Carpinteria of a decade earlier, which shows a number of ships with red trim on the gun port openings, but the gun port lids are not shown and we don't know if they were painted or not.  Generally, red gun port lids are unknown prior to the 1620s, and rare for several decades after that.   For an armada era ship, and pre-17th century ships in general, leave the gunport lids tarred wood on both sides.   

 

On to gun carriages.   Frustratingly, very few 16th - 17th c paintings depict guns in their carriages.  Those that do - a Baker drawing of the 1580s, a Dutch painting of the 1610s - all show unpainted gun carriages.  

 

A few Armada era ships - usually the really big ones, and then only some of them - had black painted wales, but most do not, and the smaller ones were most likely unpainted.  Black wales were an English fashion of the 1580s (but not before) that slowly spread, first among English ships by the mid 17th c, and then to all ships by 1700.   

 

A few of the ships in the Armada painting also show the flat of the stern painted black, a kind of forgotten 1580s thing.   

 

 

 

Baker gun carriages c 1586 light armed ship .png

Cannon detail from Ships trading in the East  c 1614.png

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