Nicholas Pocock was the finest and most popular marine painter in Britain during the Napoleonic period, his work being well informed by his own practical experience as a seaman. He also produced a number of distinctive landscapes. Nicholas Pocock was born in Bristol on 2 May 1740, the son of Nicholas Pocock, a mariner. He grew up in Prince Street, close to the docks and, from 1757, was apprenticed to his father, drawing in his spare time. On the death of his father nine years later, he began to captain Bristol trading vessels (the Lloyd, Betsey and Minerva) for the Quaker merchant, Richard Champion, leading twelve voyages, mainly to America and the West Indies. While at sea, he developed his interest in drawing, regularly illustrating his logbooks with vignettes of the ship, its surroundings and the weather conditions.
Eventually, circumstances must have encouraged Pocock to turn from the merchant navy to professional painting; for though he lost his captaincy in 1778, when Champion became insolvent, he went ahead with a marriage on 10 February 1780.
Later in the same year, he submitted work to the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and, while it arrived too late to be included, it did elicit an encouraging letter from the President, Sir Joshua Reynolds. He stated that ‘it is much beyond what I expected from a first essay in oil colours’, and advised that he ‘paint from nature’ and ‘imitate [Joseph] Vernet by uniting landscape to ship painting’. As a result, Pocock exhibited four marines at the RA in 1782, and then showed without a break until 1812, with a last appearance in 1815. At the same time, he began to receive regular commissions for both oils and watercolours.
In 1789, Pocock and his family moved to Great George Street, Westminster. His combination of seafaring experience and artistic talent made him the ideal person to record the subjects required by Royal Naval and mercantile patrons and, after the death of Dominic Serres in 1793, he became the leading naval painter in Britain. A year later, he began to record the naval battles between Britain and France, witnessing at first hand the Battle of the Glorious First of June as a guest of Captain Barlow of the frigate Pegasus.
Pocock painted more peaceful marine views, exhibiting many at the Society of Painters in Watercolours, following his founder membership in 1804. His works were also engraved as prints and illustrations to books and periodicals, notably the Naval Chronicle.
Following a stroke in 1817, Pocock seemed to stop painting altogether and retired to Ray Lodge, Maidenhead to live with his eldest son, Isaac. He died there on 9 March 1821.
Isaac was a painter of historical subjects and portraits, including one of his father and others of naval officers; however, he had a greater reputation as a playwright. Another son, William Innes, was a skilled marine watercolourist as well as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pocock’s elder daughter, Mary Anne was the mother of two significant Victorian watercolourists – George Arthur Fripp and Alfred Downing Fripp.
His work is represented in the Government Art Collection, and numerous public collections including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, the National Maritime Museum, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Brighton & Hove Museums, Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery, Gallery Oldham, the Grosvenor Museum (Chester), Leeds Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery and The Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester); and the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading: David Cordingly, Nicholas Pocock 1740–1821, London: Conway Maritime Press/ National Maritime Museum, 1986David Cordingly, ‘Nicholas Pocock’s paintings of sea battles’, www.nmm.ac.uk David Cordingly, ‘Nicholas Pocock's Voyages from Bristol’, in Sea Studies: essays in honour of Basil Greenhill, London: National Maritime Museum, 1983David Cordingly, ‘Pocock, Nicholas (1740-1821)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 44, pp 656-657 David Cordingly, Ships and Seascapes: an introduction to maritime prints, drawings and watercolours, Philip Wilson Publishers, 1997 David Cordingly, ‘The Watercolours of Nicholas Pocock’, The Old Water-Colour Society's Club, vol 54, 1979, pp 24-40Randall Davies, ‘Nicholas Pocock’, The Old Water-Colour Society's Club, vol 5, 1927–28, pp 1-29 Stephen Deuchar, ‘Pocock, Nicholas (b Bristol, 2 May 1741; d Maidenhead, Berks, 19 March 1821)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 25, p 61 W H Dunman, Nicholas Pocock, catalogue of the exhibition held at Bristol Art Gallery in 1940