The People of Gibraltar
1813 - Henry Bonham Bax – Gibraltar Watercolours

Henry was born in 1798, joined the Royal Navy in 1813 only to leave it a few years later in 1817. At least one hobby that seems to have kept him busy during this period – and indeed for the rest of his life - seems to have been the painting of watercolours. 

Curiously, the sheer number of paintings one can find on the internet attributed to him appear to confirm him as was a prolific painter with an obsession for depicting the sea and its  attendant coast lines, often including historically verifiable events.

There are scenes from just about everywhere. Those which are given the somewhat unlikely date of 1813 would have been painted when he was 15 years old and had just joined the navy. They include scenes of multiple views of the coasts of England, France, Italy, Minorca and Portugal as well as quite a few of Gibraltar.

The Mulgrave entering Gibraltar Bay (1813)

The Mulgrave in the company of the San Josef of 120 guns passing the Strait of Gibraltar homeward bound (19th century)

Chasing a Convoy through the Poimbo Passage, Italy (1813)
The chaser looks suspiciously like HMS Mulgrave

HMS Mulgrave was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched in 1812. She might very well have been the ship he sailed in during his years in the navy.

Another eclectic set of watercolours dated more ambiguously as having been painted in the 19th century, depict an even wider range of countries and coast lines including England, Wales, Tarifa, Madeira, Bermuda, Dominica, Portugal Ceuta, Egypt and Singapore – and again Gibraltar.

Tarifa (19th century)

Gibraltar Strait (19th century)

There are also a few that are specifically dated. The oldest one I have come across is dated 1857 by which time he was nearly 60 years old. It depicts an historical event, in which luckily it seems there were no casualties.

The Tyne it as appears from the Cliffs at St Alban’s Head at Half Flood, 20th January 1857

After leaving the service in 1817, Bonham Bax joined the East India Company which reading between the lines appears to have proved a long and prosperous association. According to records shown in a supplement to the Register of Ships employed in the service of the Hon the United East India Company published in 1835, from 1818 to 1831 Bonham was involved in no less than seven major trips to the Orient using four different ships all of which he appears to have been the ship’s husband acting as agent for the owner of the ship. He is also often described on some of these voyages as the ship’s captain.

A list of his travels throughout his career in the Company includes the following where he is identified as a Commander HEIC (Hon East India Company)

1818-1819 - East Indiaman, Prince Regent – destination, Madras and Bengal
1819-1820 - East Indiaman, Prince Regent – destination, Madras and Bengal
1820/1821 - East Indiaman, Prince Regent – destination, Madras and China
1822/1823 - East Indiaman Asia – destination, Madras and China Season
1826/1827 - East Indiaman Abercrombie Robinson – destination, Bombay and China
1828/1829 - East Indiaman Edinburgh - Bombay and China
1829/1830 - East Indiaman Marq. Wellington - Bengal
1830/1831 - East Indiaman Edinburgh - Bombay and China

“The Launch of the Honourable East India Company's ship ''Edinburgh'' in 1825” (1827 - William John Huggins)

The ship on the left in the above picture was the "Abercrombie Robinson" which was launched the following year.

In an older registry of ships employed by the East India Company from 1760 to 1819 a certain Henry Bonham appears as commander or ship’s husband for numerous trips to the Orient dating from 1803 to 1810. I can only speculate that this gentleman was Henry Bonham Bax’s father. Two of his ships the "Calcutta" and the "Lord Nelson" were reported as lost – the first off Mauritius the second “in a gale of Wind.” Luckily for all concerned Bonham senior was not on board either of them.

Bonham junior was also not on board for the 1829 trip to Bengal as he got married to Ann Hansen, a West Yorkshire girl from a very large family that same year. Whatever he did after his last trip for the East India Company, is a mystery to me as I can’t find any further information until 1844 when he makes an appearance in several documents.

In a 300 odd page record in the London Metropolitan Archives there is a reference to a house rental agreement between Henry Bonham Bax and Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson as shown below.

Difficult to tell why he moved. Henry had by now left the East India Company to become a member of the Trinity House Fraternity. This peculiarly British independent institution was set up by Henry VIII in 1514. During the 19th century it had made itself responsible for a range of maritime concerns such as ship and port safety.

I am not sure when Bax joined but by 1844 he had become a member of the Court of Elder Brethren selected from the much larger ranks of what were known as the Younger Brethren.  He appears as such in the Royal Kalender of 1847 where he appears as having become an elder in 1844. 

The Master of the Board, none other than the Duke of Wellington as shown in the list above, would propose him three years later in 1847, as eligible to be presented to Queen Victoria at the court of St James -  or so it says in John Burke’s short-lived periodical - The Patrician - published that same year. But perhaps of more interest from a Gibraltarian point of view is that Trinity House had also made itself responsible for the construction and maintenance of several lighthouses, including one in Gibraltar. The foundation stone of this one was laid in 1838 and was completed and inaugurated in 1841. 

Despite the existence of three “19th century” watercolours by Bax in which the Gibraltar’s Trinity House Lighthouse appears, there is no evidence as to whether he might have been involved in any way. But it seems unlikely as he would not yet have been a member of the Trinity House board at the time.

Gibraltar Lighthouse and 4th Fusiliers (19th century) 

Collar Lighthouse, Apes’ Hill and Atlas Mountains (19th century)

The top painting is attributed to George Lothian Hall. The bottom one by Bax adds the two fusiliers he painted in his other lighthouse picture. The top picture forms part of a large set of Gibraltar watercolours attributed everywhere to Lothian Hall and has even been used in a calendar produced by the Gibraltar Heritage Society. However as pointed out quite a while ago by local researcher Alex Panayotti, the style used in these watercolours is completely at odds with that of the well-known marine artist of the same name. It is pretty obvious that one is a copy of the other – but who copied whom?

Back View of Gibraltar Rock (Post 1841)

Despite these two examples I don’t think Bonham was generally given to copying other peoples work - but he appears to have done so again here with Lieutenant H.E. Allen’s engraving of the Rock dated 1841 and used as an illustration in several popular travel books. Was Bax irritated that Allen had forgotten to include the lighthouse?

By the 1850s, Henry’s connections – and hard work – seem to have been paying dividends elsewhere. Adverts on several contemporary newspapers for the London Assurance Company show him as one of the directors of the company. One of the earliest to do so is the 1851 Directory of the Town of Croydon.

Insurance Company advert appearing in Black’s Picturesque Guide to the English Lakes (1854)

His name continued to be included in these adverts for the next 17 years, one of the last appearing in the Chronicle and Directory for China, Japan and the Philippines. It is dated 1868.

He died a year later.

Nearly a hundred years after Bonham Bax's death, Admiral R.N. Bax, presumably a descendent of Bonham's, presented a series of family documents to the Royal Museums Greenwich that included an illustrated list of buoys and light vessels and another illustrated book of lighthouse owned by Bax as an Elder Brother of Trinity. There were also sketches of proceedings of the 74 guns HMS Musgrave kept by Midshipman Henry Bonham Bax. It strongly suggests that most of his Royal Navy travelling was aboard the Musgrave.

Also I am not sure what the phrase “sketches of proceedings” means but it is the only historical reference I have come across that might possibly refer to his large collection of watercolours. I suspect he never exhibited them, sold them, or did anything other than paint them for his own amusement.

The few other available paintings of Gibraltar that I have been able to unearth are shown below.

Ceuta – Barbary (19th century)

Gibraltar Provision Boat – Ceuta, Península de Almina (19th century)

Suggested by local amateur historian, Roy Clinton, this one probaby represents a Spanish prize being towed into Gibraltar possibly during the Napoleonic War period – The leading ship is firing a salute on entering the Bay - (19th century)