The power and the glory

A new exhibition at Chatham Historic Dockyard traces 400 years of its history through the visions of artists. Simon Tait reports

“Ding, Clash, Dong, Bang, Boom, Rattle, Clash, Clink, Bang, Clatter, Bang Bang BANG! What on earth is this! This is, or soon will be, the Achilles, iron armour plated ship. Twelve hundred men are working on her now; twelve hundred men working on stages over her sides, over her bows, over her stern, under her keel, between her decks, down in her hold, with her and without, crawling and creeping into the finest curves of her lines wherever it is possible for men to twist. Twelve hundred hammerers, measurers, caulkers, armourers, forgers, smiths, shipwrights, twelve hundred dingers, clashers, dongers, rattlers, clinkers, bangers, bangers!”

This is how Charles Dickens painted in words the scene he saw, and heard, in 1863 at a place that had been familiar to him from boyhood, Chatham Dockyard. The vessel was the ironclad frigate HMS Achilles, built in the shipyard that had seen the birth of HMS Victory a century before.


The dockyard Dickens knew is still there, now a silent museum of its past but the largest preserved estate of its kind anywhere.

Its story is a long one. There has been a maritime settlement at this bend in the River Medway for possibly thousands of years, but Chatham Dockyard is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year as from the first keeping of records there, 1618.

The year begins with the exhibition Powerful Tides: 400 Years of Chatham and the Sea, in which both classical and contemporary artists’ work has been selected to tell the naval centre’s story, from JMW Turner and Eric Ravilious to Catherine Yass and Yinka Shonibare.

In 1618 Chatham became the base for the principal fleet, ready for action in the North Sea, and the dockyard was established where it now is. In 1687 it was the target for the Dutch fleet where the British flagship was captured by Admiral de Ruyter and many ships burned. In the 18th century the navy’s role shifted from defensive to offensive, driving westwards mostly from Porstmouth and Plymouth to establish an empire, so that Chatham became the Royal Navy’s main shipbuilding and repair yard. As a midshipman Nelson learned to sail on the Medway here. Between 1756 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars the dockyard launched 26 line of battle warships, including the most famous of them all, HMS Victory. In 1805 Victory brought back Nelson’s body to come ashore at Chatham after his death at Trafalgar, before it was taken on to London. In its time a more successful warship was HMS Namur which, after a long career, was broken up at Chatham and its timbers used to support the floor of the wheelwright’s shop. It’s timbers were discovered in 1995 and identified eight years later – arranged just as they would have been in the ship, perhaps to honour its service. The ancient timbers are now a popular exhibition at the dockyard, laid out as they were found.

Chatham Dockyard continued it Royal Naval Service – at one time as a birthplace for submarines, 57 of them between 1908 and 1966 – until 1984 when the dockyard was finally decommissioned and assigned to a charitable trust. There are 47 ancient monuments on the site, all having to be restored and conserved, and put to modern use.  The site is a mixed purpose estate now, with some of the stately 18th century buildings now adapted to become private dwellings and 120 businesses leasing space to make the dockyard viable.

Curated by the historian Professor Jean Wainwright of the University for the Creative Arts, the exhibition was commissioned by Alex Patterson, head of visitor experience.

“We wanted to give a sense of Chatham Dockyard but also its surrounds, its association with the sea, through the work of artists that had a connection, both classical and contemporary” he says.

So JMW Turner’s famous image of the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in a full colour sketch (main image), is juxtaposed with Shonibare’s maquette of the famous Victory in a bottle, the full version of which now stand outside the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Next to another Turner sketch, this time for The Fighting Temeraire (also built at Chatham) is an early 19th century amateur painting of the dockyard by a namesake, a Dr Turner.

A wonderful engraving of the dockyard by Muirhead Bone gives sight to Dickens’s words, with dockyard hands scurrying over a submarine under construction in the 1940s, and a contrast is Catherine Yass’s powerful photographic diptych of the columns for the Blackfriars Bridge on the Thames which brought the London, Chatham and Dover Railway to its final destination. A neon piece by Tracey Emin, She Lay down Deep Beneath The Sea, recalls her own experience when she almost drowned in the sea near her childhood home at nearby Margate.

The family of the German artist Christiane Baumgartner is descended from de Ruyter’s, and her images of wrecks along the Medway are ethereal and an age away from the frantic industry of Chatham in its heyday.


Powerful Tides runs at Chatham Dockyard until June 17, but there is a year round programme of events, activities, free talks and exhibitions to mark the dockyard’s 400th anniversary

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