The artistic school of Pierre Puget

The ornamentation astern on the 84-gun ship of the line depicted in the Atlas of Colbert from 1664-1669 differs in many aspects from that found on the contemporary English and Dutch vessels. The galleries have balconies and it looks as if the balustrades, window frames, friezes and other decorative motifs had been taken directly from the architecture of the French palaces of that time. The famous sculptor Pierre Puget, who created the sculptures for the royal galley La Réale of 1680, was the autor of the ornamentation of numerous ships of the line, and it is said that he often covered the stern with so many heavy figures that the commanders, exasperated, ordered to cut them down as soon as they were in the sea, to make the ships more maneuverable.

Transom of a French ship of the line, circa 1665
A blue background was typical of French warships, at least during the second half of the 17th century, and a typical motif was the fleur de lys. A certain depiction of a contemporary 56-gun ship of the line gives some idea about the fantastic extravaganza found in French warships, even if the very transom is not visible. There is a huge lantern on top of that one and the two side lanterns have been replaced, respectively, by an earth globe and some sort of planetary; it is not clear whether these two structures still served the function of a lantern or not. The quarter galleries show fancy windows, one of rounded shape and another one with imitation of curtains in the frame. The sides of the hull, including the whole upper gun deck, are painted in blue with a multitude of yellow fleur de lys.

French 56-gun ship of the line
The following picture corresponds to the 104-gun ship of the line Dauphin Royal from 1668. Note the large sculptures and architectural elements such as balustrades and cupolas.

Transom of the ship of the line Dauphin Royal, 1668
The imagery on the aforementioned French royal galley included sculptures of angels playing trumpets and merfolk playing seashells, and a plate depicting a mythological scene. The whole hull was painted in dark blue with a multitude of yellow fleur de lys.

Transom of the French galley La Réale, circa 1680
On the late century, the ornamentation on French warships was made more reasonable and the figures were made in bas-relief. The Saint Philippe, a 90-gun ship of the line built in 1693, was decorated with very good taste as every other French warship of that time, albeit the stern, built with an almost rect angle, gives the impression of a miniature palace which does not follow the natural shape of the hull. On the other hand, the 104-gun Soleil Royal, a contemporary of the Saint Philippe, still featured some heavy sculptures.

Transom of the ship of the line Saint Philippe, 1693
Transom of the ship of the line Soleil Royal, 1693

The realm of austerity

Ornamentation was generally austere in Spanish warships and painting often deficient due to lack of funds. The 17th century was a period of stagnation in this regard. The following picture is an enhanced version of a contemporary drawing from around 1690, which depicts the transom of a mid-sized ship of the line or gallion (this latter was the term used in the Spanish Navy before 1732). The decoration looks more appropriate for a galley than for a ship of the line and the shape of the transom looks strange. The central motif features a religious theme, very recurrent in the Spanish style. The caryatids look grotesque, for they seem to feature male faces along with not little female breasts... product of a morbid imagination? This transom belongs to a series drawn by naval architect Garrote and all of the designs featured look roughly the same. The color scheme is unknown.

Transom of a Spanish ship of the line, circa 1690
In the mid 18th century the Spanish Navy was in full reconstruction and the vessels built were of quality comparable with that of foreign warships. However ornamentation continued being austere in general. The 80-gun ship of the line Real Fénix from 1749 was one of the first warships built with a transom of round crowning, in which a bas-relief ornamentation is restricted within the boundaries of a horseshoe-shaped area. During the subsequent decades this style would become widespread in every Navy. As in other Spanish warships of the century, the ornamentation was yellow over black background.

Transom of the ship of the line Real Fénix, 1749
To the artistic exuberance of the 17th century followed in every Navy an increasing moderation during the subsequent century, and finally an outright austerity on the late century. The famous British 104-gun ship of the line Victory had been originally built in 1765 with balconies astern, but this is largely unknown, and nowadays we know the ship as she was in the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, when the galleries had been closed in a remodelation effectuated time ago. The rather austere ornamentation was painted in yellow over a black background and only the figurehead and the coat of arms of the ship were gilded. The decorative motifs, consisting solely of bas-relief, were totally symmetrical on each side of the transom, with the sole exception of the coat of arms, and the ornamentation on the two uppermost galleries comprised only an imitation of balustrade in bas-relief. Far in time had been left all the fantastic imagery and those caryatids of firm breasts that flanked doors and windows making them to look more "breastiful".

Transom of the ship of the line Victory, circa 1805
The British 104-gun ship of the line Royal Adelaide from 1828 represents another twist in the evolution of the transom. This one no longer features a flat surface independent from the quarter galleries. The galleries feature round surfaces and the balconies wrap around the whole stern encompassing the quarter galleries; this was actually an old style which had been largely abandoned during the 18th century. Some bas-relief decoration is present and the coat of arms includes polychromy, but the balustrades and columns look really simple.

Transom of the ship of the line Royal Adelaide, 1828

~ The art of transom (I) ~

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