Modeste, 1957

Alan Rapkins shares his memories and paintings from his life aboard HMS Modeste as a young man in the 1950s.

Early life

'I hope some of the images below will bring a smile, showing as they do, the struggles of a young amateur trying to record extraordinary scenes never imagined,' says Alan.

'I had been brought out of London by my parents to avoid the bombing. Our new home was a lodge house on the edge of a small country Estate, Bignell Park in Oxfordshire. It was very basic - one cold tap, no bathroom and an outside loo, and of course, no central heating.

'My education took place at the village school until I was 11. Having failed the eleven plus exam, I went to the secondary modern school in the nearby town of Bicester, where we were given bicycles to ride the two and a half miles to the school.

'It was noted that I had a talent for art and I was encouraged by my art teacher to enter for a scholarship to Banbury Art School and, surprisingly, I got it.

'Unfortunately, it was at that time my father left my mother and I became the breadwinner. Instead of art school my painting was for a man who had a contract to paint signposts.

'I had a bicycle with tins of paint in a basket on the front and I towed a ladder with little wheels on the back. I rode around an area of many miles undercoating one lot of posts then gloss the next day followed by the black rings around the post and so on. But National Service loomed and my choice was to volunteer for the Royal Navy.

'And so it began. I had always kept up with my painting and drawing although my knowledge and technique was very limited. As was my equipment - odd scraps of paper and small jars of poster paint was about it.

'I was a watch keeper at sea which was very tiring and I was often seasick - painting was out of the question.

'My first overseas deployment to the Far East brought me scenes I had never dreamt of. I began to experiment with painting when I could and I was able to buy paints and some real watercolour paper, although not high quality which was far too expensive, but quite often the back of old navigator charts seemed to work fine.

'I had great difficulty with painting the skies, which were amazing, but unfortunately, I just could not paint them.

'Over time I continued to develop my painting by studying books and professional artists work, Edward Seago was one and then the amazing maritime paintings of Chris Mayger.

'My progress was slow but eventually I had three of my works accepted for exhibition with the Royal Society of Marine Artists, at the Mall Gallery in 1983, followed by my own exhibition put on by the Fine Art Trade Guild in London.

'There have been incredible advances in paints and materials over the years and the standard of work produced by leisure Painters never fails to amaze me. I do sell work from time to time but basically I am still a leisure painter. Best of luck to you all,' Alan.

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We set out on a Hermes aircraft on a journey that lasted three days, taking us from from Blackbush airport  via Rome, Cyprus, Bahrain, Karachi, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bangkok, to Singapore in December 1955.

This is a drawing of the starboard wing of the Hermes aircraft

We began our 18-month deployment from Singapore Dockyard, exercising in the waters around the area.

The painting below is of the Island of Paula Tioman, in those days an almost uninhabited tropical island. We were allowed there to swim.

I made an initial sketch on a scrap of paper and, nine days later, I completed the painting on the back of an old chart given to me by our Navigator.

Hong Kong

The painting below was done during our visit to Hong Kong where we had a large naval base with a huge dry dock.

It was painted from the ships focsle (Fore Castle) while in the dockyard and is of the central area of the city, showing the wonderful buildings that existed there at the time. Almost none of today's tower blocks.

I recently completed a painting from an old faded photograph I found, showing my ship, HMS Modeste, together with our sister ship, HMS Crane, in the dry dock (see further below).


From Hong Kong we travelled to Japan, to the city of Kure.

From there I took advantage of a coaster ride to the sacred Island of Miyajima. It was there, I was told, that the Kamikaze pilots made their final pilgrimage before going to their deaths.

The painting is of the, now very famous, Floating Torii Gate. I have pinned a recent paper clipping to it. I remember it was beautifully calm and peaceful. Not so now I imagine.


It was then only shortly after the Korean War, so we were lucky to visit one of the most remote Korean ports, Tongyeong.

It was a dismal, very run down, place but I went ashore to stretch my legs and get away from the crowded mess deck aboard ship. This time I actually had a sketch pad!

Whilst there I came across this amazing old fishing boat and spent ages trying to draw it and became a great source of interest to the locals who were fascinated by my having hairy arms which caused much laughter and made it very difficult to concentrate – as the work shows.


Within a month of leaving Hong Kong we arrived in Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

It was a quiet place with a naval base, HMS Highflyer.

Several visits were attempted to the many places of interest there, such as Polonnaruwa and Sigiraya, the medieval fortress whose keep crowned the summit of a fantastic 500ft. mass of rock. This is the subject of the painting below. It just had to be recorded – so unusual. Little changed in the last almost 70 years, as the attached clipping shows.

We also took advantage of the stunning beaches surrounding the harbour.

This painting of our time in Trincomalee (below) shows one such beach, surrounded by lush vegetation.

The Suez Crisis

With the beginning of October 1956 came the Israeli–Egyptian crisis – Suez.

Our ship was ordered to Aden - a rather arid, volcanic place and very hot.

Whilst we were moored in the harbour and I had an opportunity to record the rather hostile atmosphere of the place – much changed now I understand.

By the end of October we were far up the Red Sea, towards Aqaba, in the Gulf of Agaba. It was during this time at sea that I made the effort to paint the rocky coastline of the Sinai Peninsula(see below).

We were at action stations most of the time and our sister ship, HMS Crane, had been hit by a rocket-attacking aircraft. At just19 years of age, I was very much hoping to get to 20! So this painting holds many memories.

The painting above shows the Modeste, on passage from Singapore to Hong Kong in 1956, seven days of bad weather and seasickness! The painting itself was completed at a later date.

This final painting, below, as mentioned earlier, is of those two dear old sister ships together.

HMS Modeste and HMS Crane

I remained in the Royal Navy for thirty one years gaining a commission to become a Marine Engineer Officer and took the Frigate HMS Phoebe to the Falklands in 1977 when the government became suspicious of Argentine activity on South Georgia.

I returned again in 1982 for the Falklands War. I decided to leave the Navy in 1985.

See more from Alan in the PaintersOnline gallery.

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