HMS Exeter

The commissioned painting
Summer 1980

"My first sight of 'HMS Exeter' was but a distant smudge of 5-6 miles. 'There you are', said my companion, Lieutenant Commander John Johnson. I had rendezvoused with him an hour or so earlier, having driven up from Devon. As we sat in his car waiting, the heavens opened and visibility was reduced to a very short distance. 'What would you like to do? Sit tight or go back to the yard?' he said. We decided to hang on and see if the weather would clear, as it appeared to be lifting. Within ten to fifteen minutes, a golden sun appeared and a little while later, the horizon was visible and there she was again. 'I think she's stopped', he said and I keenly studied the smudge on the horizon. He said to me, 'I think she’s moving' and quite suddenly, she seemed to be going at an astonishing speed, even from this distance. Illuminated by the golden sun, she gave an impression of sleek power, a tigress of the seas. For a while, a squall sweeping across hid her from our view once again and then she reappeared, the hull and super structure turning to a warm gold and her unique blue boot topping showing clearly. Her speed had slowed considerably as she made for the twin breakwaters. As she came in, she was following a small merchant ship, which she was gaining on quite quickly and actually passed as they both headed up the Tyne. 'Well', said my companion, 'let's go and we might just get in before she docks.'"

HMS Exeter passing a merchantman
HMS Exeter just about to pass a small merchantman   ©
"She had been at sea for a 48 hour trial period, under the red ensign and now she was returning to the shipyard. By the time we'd got to the shipyard, it was twilight. We hurried down to where 'Exeter' would dock. A little crowd of twenty of so people had gathered and were looking expectantly downriver. We stood back a little from this group of people and waited expectantly. Silhouetted against the evening sky, I was struck by the many gigantic cranes, all still and silent. They seemed almost like alien creatures, benevolently watching over their various charges, still, silent, yet alert. "That", my companion pointed out, "is the new 'Invincible' and over there on the stocks, the 'Ark Royal'". As we watched the scene, now from the crowd, which had a better viewpoint, there was an excited ripple of comment as, coming around the bend of the river, appeared a tug boat, followed by the 'Exeter' and another tug. Closer, they came and 'Exeter' had a decided awkward list to starboard, which caused quite a bit of comment. "
Photo of HMS Exeter
The ship comes in   ©
"The light was fading fast now and the ship was very close to her docking point. A pilot boat motored quietly around to her port side and then stood off. Suddenly, the scene which had been so quiet, was suddenly all action with a lot of shouting and 'Exeter' was swiftly brought alongside her docking point and secured. At last, I was able to get a really good look at this ship, which had preoccupied my thoughts for so long. A crane lifted a gangway to her starboard side. I was bemused because as soon as the gangway was secured, everyone poured off the ship, in what seemed undue haste. Did they know something?"
"Lieutenant Commander Johnson then took me to meet Captain Dreyer, with whom I was to stay for the next three days, whilst I studied the ship.

The next morning Captain Dreyer was up early and I went with him down to the yard. The sun was shining and the whole yard was busy with activity. I set about establishing contacts with Swan's people, who would help me to get to see what I wanted, without getting in the way. The day was spent absorbing all the atmosphere and detail of the ship and making endless notes and sketches."

HMS Exeter -Robin sketching at Swan's
Robin sketching the Exeter at Swan's 1980   ©
Note the blue boot topping
"My work over the next couple of days attracted the attention of several of the shipbuilders, a couple of whom passed critical comment on some of my sketches and privately admitted that they did a bit of painting themselves! One of the crane drivers, with whom I had struck up a rapport, offered to set me up in a large steel box, so that I could get an elevated view of the ship, starboard side. I loaded my sketchbook, camera and two canvases into the bucket and was hoisted into the desired position. He had indicated to me that I'd be O.K. for an hour or so, as the crane was not needed. In the bright sunshine, this panoramic view was absolutely wonderful."
Photo of HMS Exeter from the crane
A view from the 'bucket', looking downriver.   ©
In the foreground is an Iranian ship, which had been impounded due to the political situation, and beyond, the Invincible fitting out.
Another photo of HMS Exeter from the crane
A view of Exeter from the 'bucket'   ©

"After an hour or so, I felt that I had got all that I could gain from my lofty viewpoint and looked in vain, to the crane driver's cab. My anxiety increased as the sky clouded over with ominous rain clouds gathering. Looking over the side of the bucket, I tried to attract attention from the shipbuilders below or anyone passing. Within twenty minutes, a severe and heavy shower was buffeting the bucket. I tried to shelter the sketches and the camera as best I could, by using the upturned canvas that I'd been working on. Rain won't hurt oil paint, but I was worried that the wooden stretcher would warp. The squall passed on and eventually, a cheery wave from the cab signalled that it was time to come down.
Later, down on 'terra firma', the crane driver invited me to view his world of great responsibility and skill. Yet his cab reminded me of old electric tram cars."
Photo of HMS Exeter - twin Sea dart launcher
Photo inside the crane

Left: A view from the bridge of the twin Sea dart launcher
Centre: The crane driver's world
Right: 4.5 in. Mk. 8 gun turret
Photo of HMS Exeter - gun turret

Completion of the painting in Devon

"Back in the Studio, work now progressed rapidly to complete the two canvases. I worked with confidence I gained from an intimate understanding of the subject.

The completed painting was unveiled at a special ceremony in Exeter's historic Guildhall, following a Divine Service at Exeter Cathedral, attended by the Captain and Officers of the Ship's Company, on Sunday 2nd November 1980."

HMS Exeter painting presentation
The Mayor of Exeter, Mrs Joan Richardson, and the Commanding Officer of HMS Exeter, Captain Dreyer, hold up the oil painting, watched by the directors of Beach Bros. Ltd., Sunday 2nd November 1980.

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