The six 2ft 3in x 20in (69 x 51cm) hand-coloured engravings depict what in the mid-18th century was the world’s largest industrial complex and the British state’s single biggest investment.
Full of pictorial and textual detail, they present the machine of empire as orderly, efficient, and imposing – referencing through lettered keys the specific functions of each location.
Some are naval bases or rendezvous points. Others are for wintering ships or repair yards. To the borders are captioned vignettes with evocative titles such as Haul Main Top Sail, Flying To Windward Close Hauled and Burnt To The Water’s Edge.
Although his name appears to the dedication cartouches of each plate, it appears that the youthful Thomas Milton (1742/43-1827) was only a minor partner in a substantial artistic and surveying venture.
As the prints of Deptford, Woolwich and Portsmouth were published in 1753-54, with Sheerness, Chatham, and Plymouth following in 1755-56, it is assumed that his father John Milton, a marine artist active c.1743-76 was much involved.
Some of the shipping scenes are by John Cleveley the Elder (c.1712-77) who was a Deptford dockyard shipwright as well as a painter. The engraving was by French émigré Pierre-Charles Canot (c.1710-77).
Individual uncoloured prints are more commonly offered at auction. Complete sets with such fine hand colouring are rare.
These plans came for sale on August 13 from a deceased estate in St Austell.
In good condition (only Woolwich was slightly reduced to the margins), they sold to a private buyer via thesaleroom.com against an estimate of £600-800.