The Channel Fleet in heavy weather signed 'J.W.Carmichael' and dated 1852 (lower right) oil on canvas 101.6 x 167.6cm. (40 x 66in.)
Each year in the mid-nineteenth century, the Channel Fleet or, as it was more usually known before 1858, the Western Squadron - undertook a summer cruise through the English Channel to practice its gunnery and manoeuvres, and to put new vessels through their paces in battle formation. This splendidly ambitious work by Carmichael almost certainly depicts that annual event in the navys calendar and has an added significance in that it shows the Squadron in what was probably the very last year before its composition was changed forever by the gradual introduction of screw-driven warships powered by steam.
Although not exhibited publicly, this painting shows striking parallels with Carmichaels Royal Academy piece of two years later which he titled Merchant Service. That too depicted a wide variety of sailing vessels juxtaposed in heavy seas but in that painting all the ships were commercial traders. In view of the marked similarity of the overall theme however, it seems very possible that the work offered in this catalogue was the precursor to that which followed it in 1854.
Dominating this fleet panorama is the flagship Prince Regent, laid down at Chatham on 17th July 1815 and launched on 12th April 1823. Designed and built as a 120-gun First Rate measured at 2,602 tons, she proved so crank [i.e. liable to heel over] that she was docked in 1841 and cut down to a 92-gun Second Rate at a cost of £53,815. Emerging as a far more manageable vessel in 1847, she then spent the next thirteen years at sea including a period as flagship to the Western Squadron before being converted to screw propulsion in 1860-61. Thereafter mounting 78 guns, her second rebuild was less successful than the previous exercise in 1841-47 and she saw little further service before being broken up in 1873.
In addition to his fine portrait of the flagship, Carmichael has also shown the whole range of warships to be found in a fleet during the age of sail, namely frigates of varying size, brigs, schooners and cutters, as well as other ships-of-the-line of different rates. One of this latter group is depicted in the left centre of the painting and is readily identifiable as one of Sir Robert Seppings creations, with its distinctive rounded stern designed to minimize damage from shot and shell. Lastly, on the extreme left, the artist has included a fast armed cutter flying the flag of the Lord High Admiral and undoubtedly carrying one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who was accompanying the fleet to observe its general efficiency and readiness for combat.