The Calcutta-trade merchantman 'Nonsuch' in two positions off the Kingsgate Gap signed 'Thos. Whitcombe' and indistinctly dated 1790 ? (lower right) oil on canvas 91.4 x 139.7cm (36 x 55in).
Although neither built nor operated initially at least as a bona fide East Indiaman, Nonsuch was one of the many merchantmen chartered by the Honourable East India Company to ease food shortages in England caused by the War with Revolutionary France which had begun in 1793. Homeward-bound cargoes normally consisted of rice, sugar and coffee and the ships involved were often hired at short notice and for a single voyage, though a few made two or even three.
Nonsuch, a classic three-master sporting a full ship-rig, was built in Watsons yard, Calcutta, in 1781. Measured by her builder at 483 tons and constructed of finest Indian teak throughout, she mounted 24-guns which, even though intended for purely defensive purposes, was nevertheless an impressive armament for a merchantman of her day. Owned by J. Canning, Esq., she is first noted in the London to Calcutta trade in 1797, under the command of Captain R. Duffin, but disappears from record in 1805, fate unknown. It is also recorded however that her hull was sheathed and coppered in 1790 which could well have been done in conjunction with her sale to a new owner; if this was the case, it would readily explain why this painting was apparently commissioned in 1790.
Kingsgate Gap, originally known as Bartholomew Gate but renamed in 1683 after the landing there of King Charles II and his brother the Duke or York (later James II), is situated on the North Foreland of Kent, a popular anchorage and rendezvous point during the age of sail as vessels awaited a fair wind to take them either up the Thames into London or down the English Channel. Clearly visible above the cliffs in the painting is Kingsgate Castle which, later in the nineteenth century, was the home of Lord Avebury, the Victorian politician who introduced Bank Holidays in 1871.