Detective work identifies pirates in Dutch masterpiece at Felbrigg Hall

Siege of Amoy
Published : 19 Mar 2018 Last update : 20 Jul 2020

Research into a painting by Dutch artist Simon de Vlieger, has revealed it depicts a different battle scene to what experts had previously thought.

It had been suggested the maritime painting portrayed the Siege of Amoy (Xiamen), but it is now thought the subject is a Chinese and Dutch attack on pirates that took place three years earlier, on 9 February 1630. The painting, which has hung in the Cabinet Room at Felbrigg Hall for over 250 years, was been taken off the wall in 2018 so the silk and wool wall hangings could be cleaned, allowing a closer inspection and an opportunity to revisit the story it tells. 

Who was Simon de Vlieger?

Simon de Vlieger was one of the most important and influential Dutch marine painters of the seventeenth century. He had a great interest in the depiction of stormy seas, favouring calmer coastlines later on in his career.

Famous for his maritime paintings, de Vlieger painted with incredible accuracy, from the ships to, as in this painting, a pineapple on the foreshore. And it’s the detail de Vlieger captures that has helped historians raise questions about the scene this masterpiece depicts.

War, trade and piracy

National Trust Curator, Lisa Voden-Decker, has been in touch with global and colonial historian Tristan Mostert at Leiden University to increase understanding of the painting:

“We knew the subject was a battle between Dutch East Indiamen and Chinese junks set in the dangerous waters of the South China Sea, which was and remains a hotbed of piracy. It was a particular problem during the Ming dynasty, when as well as capturing trading ships, pirates raided cities along the Chinese coast. 

“At the time, the Dutch East India Company, which was seeking to advance its position in the South China Sea, had a number of  run-ins with pirate groups. The Siege of Amoy was one such battle but two of the identifiable Dutch ships in the scene, the ‘Domburch’ and the ‘Arnemude’, did not take part in it”. 

History detectives

“Our conversations with Tristan and the sharing of research undertaken by his student Mischa Frenks confirmed the Dutch ships in the picture were in the same part of the South China Sea in late 1629 and early 1630."

" The formation of the ships, the flags and their markings also indicate that this scene is the battle of 9 February 1630. "
- Lisa, Voden-Decker, Curator

"In that battle the Dutch allied with a group of pirates led by Zhong Bin to triumph over the more powerful pirate, Li Kuiqi; he was captured and turned over to authorities for execution. This Chinese-Dutch alliance triumphed, but to their frustration the Dutch were not rewarded with the increased trade with China they had been hoping for. It wasn’t long either before piracy flourished again in the Taiwan Strait.”

This painting is one of the largest in Felbrigg's collection
Two people viewing the Siege of Amoy
This painting is one of the largest in Felbrigg's collection
The Cabinet Room at Felbrigg

At present nothing is known of the painting’s history prior to its arrival at Felbrigg Hall. It is thought that William Windham II acquired this Dutch masterpiece when he was in the Netherlands, where he finished his Grand Tour. 

In 2018, visitors to Felbrigg Hall enjoyed seeing this painting and all of its stunning details up close. One of the largest paintings in the National Trust’s collection in Norfolk, it sat on a specially made easel for the duration of the year, whilst conservation work to the Cabinet Room continued.