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Michael Topping fl.1728 died 1789
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Michael Topping fl.1728 died 1789

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The launch of a 24-gun 6th rate ship for the Honourable East India Company from John Perry's Yard at Blackwall circa 1745-50, with a view towards Blackwall Yard House on the Bank of the Thames where two similar ships are under construction.


Grisaille watercolour drawing on three large sheets, overall size 21 x 43 inches and contained in its original George III carved giltwood frame


Signed (lower part of letters trimmed) “M. Topping delin.” on the lower left margin.


This especially fine ship-portrait seems to be the unique signed work by Michael Topping, a hitherto unknown marine draughtsman of self-evidentally exceptional talent. It relates very closely indeed to another monochrome drawing of the HEICS “Falmouth” in three views at its launch from John Perry's Blackwall Yard in 1752:



Here identified as by Michael Topping: The Falmouth, Captn Thos Field Launcht at Blackwall the 4th August 1752. Monochrome watercolour en grisaille on three sheets overall size 569 x 1117 mm / 22.4 x 44 inches (Collection National Maritime Museum PT2588).


Michael Topping has not previously been identified as a water-colourist, but it has proved possible to recreate his career to a reasonable extent. His date of birth is unknown, but he is presumable to be identified with the Michael Topping who married Margaret Watkins on 4th November 1728 at St Katherine by the Tower, London. Topping is an exceptionally rare name in the south of England, and no other family of the name has been traced at this date. There are two main distributions of the name, though, in south Lancashire and in Northumberland, whence perhaps he came as in search of a career.


In 1764/5 the great organ was build in the new St. Mary's Rotherhithe. The Wren-style church has been completed by Lancelot Dowbigin in 1747/8, and the congregation soon was pressing the Bishop of Winchester for permission to install an organ. The remarkably fine instrument was installed by John Byfield in 1764/5, and it remains today without peer in England for the playing of the Handelian and baroque repertiore. Michael Topping was recruited as the first organist in the church (they had used a small orchestra before) in 1765 at an honorarium of £30 per annum.


John Perry's Yard was long established at Blackwall on the Thames: in 1742 the Navy had surveyed the Thames to find the ship-building capacity of the river after an extended period of peace – and consequent building of few warships. They discovered that John Perry's Yard had the greatest capacity on the Thames. For the subsequent two decades, the Yard was a hive of activity as numerous armed merchantmen and naval ships were constructed. He was one of the main contractors for the East India Company, and specialised in these smaller fast Eastindiamen of which he built many. At John Perry's death in 17711 , Michael Topping was recorded as the senior supervising officer of the Yard.


Michael Toppings burial was at Bunhill Fields on 26th September 1789. His like-named son. Michael Topping II (1747-1796) was the chief Marine Surveyor of Fort St. George in Madras, and became the HEIC's Astronomer. He founded the oldest modern technical school2 outside Europe in Madras (Chennai) which opened May 17, 1794. Topping was also the first full-time modern professional surveyor of India having surveyed the seas off the Coromandel Coast, India's south-east coast.

1Will PRO PROB 11/721 ff142v-3v

2Now called the College of Engineering, Guindy


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