“Stern of an English 74 Gun Ship of the Line”
This delicate ink drawing depicting the stern of a 74 gun, ship of the line in docks, was executed at the end of the 18th century. The location of the dockyard is unknown, although Port Mahon in Minorca is a possible candidate.
The “seventy-four” was a type of two-decked sailing ship of the line which nominally carried 74 guns. It was developed by the French navy in the 1740s and spread to the British Royal Navy where it was classed as third rate. From here, it spread to the Spanish, Dutch, Danish and Russian navies. The design was considered a good balance between firepower and sailing qualities, but more importantly, it was an appealing ideal for naval administrators and bureaucrats. Seventy-fours became a mainstay of the world’s fleets into the early 19th century when they began to be supplanted by new designs and by the introduction of steam powered ironclads.
The Royal Navy captured a number of the early French 74-gun ships during the War of Austrian Succession (for example, Invincible, captured at the first battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747) and the Seven Years’ War and was greatly impressed by them compared to its own smallish 70-gun ships. As a result, it started building them in great numbers from about 1760, as did most other navies. Navies that were restricted by shallow waters, such as the Dutch and Scandinavian navies, at least early on tended to avoid the 74-gun ship to a certain degree due to its size and draught, preferring smaller two-deckers instead. Even so, the seventy-four was a standard feature in all European navies around 1800. Only a handful of 74-gun ships were commissioned into the United States Navy; the US Navy’s early sea power concentrated on its frigates.
The type fell into disuse after the Napoleonic Wars, when improved building techniques made it possible to build even bigger two-deckers of 84 or even 90 guns without sacrificing hull rigidity.
The last seventy-four, the French Trafalgar veteran Duguat-Trouin, was scuttled in 1949. Her stern ornamentation is on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. In addition, dozens of ship models exist, produced as part of constructing the real ships, and thus believed accurate both externally and internally.
A ship of the line was a type of naval warship constructed from the 17th through to the mid-19th century to take part in the naval tactic known as the line of battle, in which two columns of opposing warships would manoeuvre to bring the greatest weight of broadside firepower to bear. Since these engagements were almost invariably won by the heaviest ships carrying the most powerful guns, the natural progression was to build sailing vessels that were the largest and most powerful of their time.