In 1901 the Royal Navy was at the height of her power and the sun never set upon the British Empire. The fleets of France and Imperial Russia combined, the next two
closest naval powers, could not equal the might of the Royal Navy. The navy of the Kaiser was a rather puny thing with Admiral von Tirpitz just starting the meteoric
rise of the Kriegsmarine. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States Navy was on the cusp of rapid expansion following the naval victories over a moribund
Spanish navy and Teddy Roosevelt now at the helm. On the 22nd of January of the year Queen Victoria had died and bequeathed her son Edward VII the mightiest
instrument of war on the planet, the Royal Navy. It was the era when the battleship was king and the power and exploits of British battleships and other vessels were
published by a periodical entitled
The Navy and Army Illustrated. Edited by Commander Charles N. Robinson, the magazine catered to the entire British public, not just
the military. In 1901
The Navy and Army Illustrated published and inspired hard back book to celebrate the splendors of the Royal Navy.
Two decades ago, I was buying many period postcards of warships. I ran across a seller in Cyprus who was selling prints of turn of the century Royal Navy warships.
I bought one and was so delighted with the large colored plate of
HMS Majestic that I wound up buying four more, although I missed in getting a plate of HMS Good
. On the web site of the seller it stated that these plates were individual pages cut from a book entitled Britannia’s Bulwarks published in 1901. For the next
twenty years I wondered about this book and the multitude of glorious plates that had not seen. Well, one day I was cruising the web site of a second-hand book sellers
and Voila! A seller in Glasgow, Scotland was selling the book for the extraordinary low price of US$100. I snatched it up and when it arrived saw what I had been
missing for the last twenty years. All in all it was in very good shape, although it did have a few pages with very small tears.
Britannia’s Bulwarks, The Achievements of Our Seamen, The Honours of Our Ships is a large book, measuring 14 ½-inches wide and 9 ¼-inches tall. The
cover is in dark blue with gilt title and decorations. I have also seen photographs of the volume with crimson and dark green covers. There are 96 pages in the book.
The format has 24 short chapters with each chapter having four pages, two of text and black and white drawings by
C. J. Staniland and two-color plates, which
occupy a full page per plate. The Introduction, written by editor
Commander Charles N. Robinson RN states, ”Britannia’s Bulwarks is a linking of the old with
the new in a manner altogether new. The famous ships of glorious memory are presented by picture and pen alongside their counterparts in the Modern Navy ….
The leading idea has thus been to group some modern ship much in the public mind with her famous namesake in the old wars, and thus to represent the navy
in its past and its, illustrating its continuity and employment.
” The plates were done by British maritime painter, Charles Dixon. Commander Robinson, further
states in the introduction, “
The illustrations are a revelation of unsuspected possibilities, for that eminent marine painter, Mr. Charles Dixon, R.I., has prepared
an admirably successful and beautiful series of water-colour pictures, which are reproduced with a fidelity of effect that would have been unattainable even a
short time ago. They are an unrivalled illustration of ancient and modern naval types.
” There is no mention of the author of the text with only the cryptic, “The
story of prowess and achievement is told by the competent hand of a writer deeply versed in our naval history, and not less acquainted with the ships of the present
” The color plates are fabulous and by far the main reason to acquire this volume.
Charles Dixon was born at the village of Streatley on the upper Thames on December 8, 1872. Son of Alfred and Mary Jane Dixon, his father was also a painter of
historical and genre works.  In 1889 he had his first pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy. He always had a love of the Thames, especially around London and
many of his pieces were portraits of the Thames basin at London. He also did posters for steamship lines and quite a few on yachts. Of course, it is his works on the
Royal Navy that most intrigues me. Dixon also admired the US Navy and some of his portraits were on American naval topics. I will do a more in depth look at
Charles Dixon when I review my copy of Charles Dixon And the Golden Age of Marine Painting by Stuart Boyd, published in 2009. The plates in Britannia’s
cover only one ship with the sole exception being HMS Victory, which has three plates devoted to Lord Nelson’s flagship. Hardly a surprise! In my copy
on the inner fly was the hand-written inscription, “
To Tom, With all good Wishes. W.G. Maclean. Christmas 1903.” The only W. G. Maclean that I could find was
his name in a British law report in 1904 about property he left in the Transvaal. This W. G. Maclean lived in Edinburgh and died in November 1902. Is this the same
person that presented Britannia’s Bulwarks to young Tom or not? Is it just a coincidence that the volume wound up at a book seller in Glasgow more than a century
later? And what of young Tom and was he really young Tom on Christmas 1903. If he was young then he probably fought in the Great War and maybe for the Royal
Navy. Not that the original owner has anything to do with the extraordinary merit of this book, but it puts a touch of human interest on an inanimate object.
Presented in this review are the first page of every chapter and all of the Dixon color plates in the book. After the photograph of the first page of the chapter are the
two plates found in that chapter. If you find a copy of
Britannia’s Bulwarks, especially at a good price, get it! One very important caveat, make sure that the
prospective volume has all 48 color plates and that the volume hasn’t been mutilated by cutting out any of the individual plates.
Steve Backer