Major General J.C. Dalton Mediterranean Views

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These striking images come from a sketchbook of views from around the Mediterranean made during two sea voyages by a J.C. Dalton. Because of the precise way that the works in the sketchbook are dated, and in some cases timed even down to the hour, we are able to reconstruct the voyages in some detail. Despite the high quality of these watercolours and pencil drawings, they were made not by a professional artist but by a soldier: nevertheless, this may have been a soldier with very particular reasons for being accurate in what he depicted.

The front board of the rectangular Windsor and Newton sketchbook, which these works come from, is inscribed ‘JC Dalton, Oct. 10 1893, Sydney NSW.’ A few weeks after writing this, the artist was far from Australia, visiting sites in the Holy Land, which at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire. He then seems to have boarded a ship that would take him down the eastern Mediterranean coast to Egypt: from other inscriptions we know that he was on board the mail steamer Rahmaniah, which belonged to the Khedivial Mail S.S. Company. Sailing under the British flag, this steam ship company (which was part of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, later known as P&O) transported mail and passengers from Alexandria in Egypt to other ports around the Ottoman Empire.

Our artist then embarked for London, from Port Said, Egypt. Other inscriptions tell us that he was on the Royal Mail Ship Oroya, a steamship belonging to the Orient Steam Navigation Company, which ran a service between London and Australia via Gibraltar, Naples and the Suez Canal.

Listed as arriving in London on the Oroya at the end of January 1894, having embarked at Port Said, is our artist, Lt-Col JC Dalton of the Royal Artillery. Lieutenant Colonel, later Major General James Cecil Dalton had been born in Canada, before joining the British Army. He had served in the Afghan War 0f 1880, and he was the author of a number of technical publications relating to the use of artillery, including one on using guns to defend against attacks from the sea: Coast Defence by Means of Curved Fire, published in 1888.

We don’t know exactly why JC Dalton was travelling around the Mediterranean in 1894. But perhaps his professional interest in coastal defence explains why he drew and painted with such a practised eye as he surveyed coastlines, and why so many of the pencil sketches and the more detailed watercolours show sites of strategic importance – straits and prominent islands, for example. JC Dalton would go on to be the Inspector of the Royal Garrison Artillery at Gibraltar, helping to design the British colony’s coastal defences.

More intriguingly, though, we also know that JC Dalton had been involved in military intelligence. Immediately before he made the pictures in our sketchbook, he had been working in the Topographical Section of the Intelligence Division of the War Office, helping to compile detailed maps of sites of military significance. We know that, during this time, he commissioned ‘covert mapping’ of sites in the Ottoman Empire, and others in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Is there more to these sketches and watercolours, then, beyond their beauty and the artistic skill they demonstrate? Is there some ‘covert mapping’ going on here? Or are these just innocent mementoes, made to while away the time on a long sea voyage?