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Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Dear forum members,

I was wondering if anyone could direct me to a good reference for the hull colours of Danish warships from around 1799-1807? My understanding is that from 1807 the navy started to adopt something like the English Nelson chequer, but that natural wood hulls with black stripes were more common before this. Any assistance much appreciated.

Thanks from Australia,


Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

There is a model in the Danish Orlogsmuseet of the Danish fleet flagship (built, 1803) which shows white stripes painted in between the rows of gunports - not showing the black squares of the gunports as in the English fashion.

The Danish Admiralty draughts for the Frigate FREYA show that below the bulwark and the lower strakes on the hull was unpainted.

Danish admiralty draughts of the Danish ships-of-the line CRONPRINDS FRIDERICH and CRONPRINDSESSE MARIA (both 1791)show an apparently white strip painted over the lower gunports.

I have a watercolor by the famous French maritime painter Antoine Roux, which I believe is of the Danish frigaTe TRITON (1790) which shows the hull unpainted (or painted in a buff color) below the bulwarks and above the lower strakes.

If you go to www.museumshipmodels.com/, you can view the ship models Peter Maack, a Danish modeller -one othe ships is the HVIDE ORN from 1798.

You could check on the Orlogsmuseet's website to see if they have photos of ship models posted.

I remember reading an account by an English naval officer who was present at the battle of Copenhagen in 1807, which described how some of the Danish warships were painted - this account was included in Dudley Pope's book entitled THE GREAT GAMBLE.

In the 1800's Danish ship models were apparently not painted - but there are some painted ship portraits available.

DANSKE ORLOGSSKIBE 1690-1860, (page 206), that authors state that there is sparse evidence of the colors which were used at various times to paint Danish warships, so documents would have to be found regarding paint used to paint he Danish warships, and painters' bills, etc.

- Eric Nielsen

Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Thank you Eric! This is extremely helpful.


Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Upon reflection, I do not know if the Danes in fact had a uniform painting scheme for Danish warships at the time of your interest.

Upon reflection, I also do not know how reliable Danish admiralty draughts are to indicate how Danish warship hulls were painted - these admiralty draughts were produced by naval architects, and not by Danish dockyard workers who fitted out Danish warships after launch.

Most Danish admiralty draughts do not indicate any kind of hull painting scheme - and those that do may not have indicated how the Holmen dockyard workers actually painted a warship's hull.

The Danish naval base and dockyard at Holmen in Copenhagen had a large permanent dockyard workforce that were employees of the Danish state - and who knows how these dockyard workers painted individual Danish warship hulls, or what discretion they had in doing so - most Danish warship hulls were kept "in ordinary" at the Holmen dockyard, and were only fitted for sea service when needed.

I mentioned Dudley Pope's book THE GREAT GAMBLE - that British naval officer's observations of Danish warships' painting schemes were from Nelson's battle in 1801, not 1807 as my earlier e-mail indicates.

A pervasive way to determine the nationality of a warship during the period of your interest (or prior thereto) was by the gigantic naval ensigns flown by a warship, and not necessarily by a hull's painting scheme - although I believe hull painting schemes became more standardized in the 19th century.

Naval ensigns were so large during the age of sail that the flagstaff on the warships' stern were almost as tall as a ship's masts - although few people seem to realize this.

I have spoken of "paint," but I do not know if any part of a Danish warship's hull may have been tarred, rather than painted.

Peter Maack's website has an e-mail address - you could correspond with him.

- Eric Nielsen

Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

I don't know if this would help, but in Sep / Oct 1807 Captain Mackenzie could not find any paint in either the Gamelholm or Nyholm dockyards at Copenhagen. This would not rule out private contractors painting the ships. Joe Paulsen

Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Captain Mackenzie's report of his failure to locate any inventory of paint supplies at the Danish navy's dockyards is an interesting fact, but how conclusive this is about anything in particular seems open to question.

However, your observation remains an interesting fact.

However, I would seriously caution against utilizing isolated observations as a basis for engaging in sweeping speculation.

Your observation, however, suggests another possibly productive line of inquiry, a sort of "reverse engineering" line of inquiry: what were the "painting" practices of the British navy at this time? Ergo, use knowledge of the British navy's supposed "painting" practices as an existing standard by which to investigate possibly similar practices in the Danish navy.

The British navy's painting practices would, inter alia, be an obvious predicate for Captain Mackenzie's perspective in his observations about Danish dockyard inventory.

I doubt that British dockyards were employing "independent contractors" to paint the hulls of British warships - that just does not seem to make any economical sense. But who knows? At this time (ergo, WARTIME, not necessarily in peacetime) the British were in fact using independent (ergo, non-government, or private) dockyards to construct British warships, to meet the urgent wartime demands of rapid naval expansion. Conversely, at this time, the Danish navy was neutral, and was not engaged in war. However, once constructed, my understanding is that these British naval hulls were only "fitted out" in British navy dockyards - this would PRESUMABLY include "painting" warship hulls.

Since the Danish navy maintained a large, permanent dockyard workforce, for which the Danish navy sometimes had difficulty finding work to keep these permanently employed dockyard actively employed, the idea of "independent contractors" actually engaged in painting Danish warships seems to be highly problematical. Nor does this appear to be economically sensible. Even the Danish naval historians conceive of this issue as involving "independent contractors" (ergo, manufactures?) who possibly SOLD paint supplies to the Danish navy, rather than having independent contractors actually painting the hulls Danish warships.

Also, as I have noted in a prior e-mail, as a near-permanent practice, the majority of Danish warships were "in Ordinary," and were MAINTAINED by the Danish navy "IN ORDINARY." Ergo, this maintenance activity (including hull PRESERVATION) regarding Danish warship hulls "in Ordinary," would have been a permanent preoccupation of Danish dockyard personnel.

Regarding the subject of "paint," another issue occurred to me. At least no later than in the 19th Century, Danish marine paintings indicate that the Danes were painting the inside (deck-side) of the upper deck bulwarks of Danish warships, in at least one case, using the color of green (not the color red as is often depicted). Anyway, "paint" seems to have been employed for this purpose.

Incidentally, FIFTY YEARS AGO, I asked Danish naval historians this exact same question about the color schemes employed by Danish warships during the "age of sail" - not specifically 1799-1807 - and got absolutely nowhere.

Regarding Captain Mackenzie's observation, I believe that at the time of the "English" occupation of the Danish naval dockyards (and Copenhagen) in 1807, the Danes were doing their best to HIDE absolutely everything possible from RAPACIOUS, INSATIABLE grasp of the covetous and wholesale plundering "English," including BUT NOT LIMITED TO the "English" navy.

- Eric Nielsen

Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Captain Mackensie was the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales the Flagship during the Copenhagen Exprditon. Admiral Gambier placed Captain Mackenzie in charge of the the administrative duties of the Occupied Arsenal. It is true that especially with,Sir Home Popham's, Flag Captain of the Fleet,leadership that even items nailed down were removed, beyond the terms of the Capitulation
By Sep 18, 1807, most of the Danish Ships of Line had the minimum equipage of masts, rigging, cables, and anchor to proceed out of the harbor and into the Roads. The first ship out was the Waldemar of 84 guns, which was last on duty in May 1807 and still partially rigged. Capt. MacKenzie noticed that the Danish ships were bare (compared to British ships) and requested funds"to buy paint and black varnish sufficient to give one coat." The letter was dated 18 Sep 1807, to Vice Admiral Stanhope, who was in charge of the occupation and fitting out the Danish Fleet from HMS Surveillante in the Arsenal. I have not found out if this was approved (probaly not).

If it has not been mentioned before there are aquatint engravings made by Niels Truslew, active in the 1800's. I don't know how accurate the color schemes are, but most of the Danish warships are yellow and black. The yellow color is probably not painted. That would leave bare wood, or varnish or another coating. See Niels Truslew, Skibe i Soen 1805, Dorthe Falcon Moller, Jens Lorentzen, and Andres Monrad Moller, Host & Sons Forlag, Copenhagen, 1979.

Joe Paulsen

Re: Colours of Danish Ships of the Line 1799-1807

Joe -

Oooops! When I posted my last reply, I thought I was basically corresponding with Alan Dearn in Australia. But I see that I was not, and I suspect you are a Dane, i.e., a Danish Dane, in Denmark. If so, my apologies. This is embarrassing.

My understanding is that the British sailors from the British fleet were the ones who rigged and "fitted out" the Danish warships for the transfer passage to England.

I cannot imagine that any Dane was excited about volunteering to render eager assistance to the British to fit out the Danish warships for British service. Danish sabotage of this effort would have been reasonable.

I remember once (40 years ago) reading a book by (I believe) Dudley Pope, entitled THE GREAT GAMBLE, about Nelson's 1801 attack on the Danish fleet in Copenhagen. I remember that this book quotes an officer in the British fleet who recorded his observations about the appearance of the hulls of some of the Danish warships in the Danish defense line. I remember that this British officer recorded that the hulls of some (or at least one) of the Danish warships were oddly painted - the hull of one (as I recall) being painted red!

Regarding the "paint" issue, I do not know if the exterior of warship hulls, during the age of sail, were completely tarred; or if they were, whether they were also painted; and if they were painted (i.e., over the surface of the underlying tar), what would the chemical reaction have been of the paint applied to a tar surface. I cannot imagine that paint applied to a tar surface would have been a compatible chemical combination - rather, one which would serve as a catalyst of an undesirable chemical reaction.

Your mention of "black varnish" is very intriguing; I had not heard of this before.

I have not seen Truslew's work for some years now, but I remember his work was sort of "primitive" (an English word, re a style of artistic paintings, that I might not be using correctly), an interesting style. I don't remember that Truslew was an academically trained artist. However, Truslew had a good maritime "eye" of sorts, and besides Danish ships, I enjoyed seeing his paintings of ships of other Baltic nations, such as Russia and possibly Prussia, etc. I remember that Truslew painted a variety of ship types, some of which were not typically depicted. Truslew's paintings constitute an interesting historical record.

It's possible Truslew's yellow color may in fact have been correct - however, I believe that human visual observation of ships at sea may have on occasion experienced a degree of optical illusion, due to "sea conditions." Or maybe brandy.

- Eric Nielsen

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