8 January 2023
We were able to acquire this oil painting in 1994, thanks to funding support from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the National Art Collections Fund.
In the foreground, a female figure sits next to a discarded anchor. She wears a blue skirt, white shirt and red head scarf and has a basket at her side. She looks like she is cleaning her feet.
Immediately in the background you can see a fishing boat with five men onboard. They are busy with ladders, ropes and sails.
The sea looks choppy and there are dark clouds to the left and right - but the direction their boat is pointing in suggests they are casting off for the day.
There are other fishing boats behind them with their sails already unfurled, heading out in the direction of Plymouth Sound.
The main background of the painting, which dates from around 1836, shows the Royal William Victualling Yard shortly after its completion.
The Yard was designed and built by architect and civil engineer, Sir John Rennie between 1824 and 1835. He had previously been involved in the construction of London Bridge.
Taking up some 14 acres and made from Plymouth limestone and Dartmoor granite, its purpose was to bring the manufacturing and storage of food, drink and other naval supplies within one secure site close to Devonport dockyard.
It was named after King William IV who, as the Duke of Clarence, laid the foundation stone. If you visit, you can see his statue standing over the entrance. The first building to be finished was named after him.
The Slaughterhouse, Mills Bakery, Melville and Brewhouse are all visible in Williams' painting. The Slaughterhouse was used as such for 26 years. Up to 100 bullocks were slaughtered there every day! The Mills Bakery was used as a bread and biscuit factory before becoming a clothing and equipment store. The Melville, with its distinctive clock tower, was a major store for food, equipment and clothing and an administration centre. The Brewhouse was a repair workshop, rum store and even a torpedo workshop.
Although decommissioned in 1992, the Yard remains one of the Navy’s finest and one of Plymouth’s most celebrated architectural listed monuments.
Next time you’re there enjoying a meal, taking a walk along the waterfront or simply going home, take a minute to remind yourself that you’re spending time in one of the greatest engineer-designed group of buildings in the country.
Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer