Maritime Art

The Society for Nautical Research helps to purchase important works of art for the National Maritime Museum. In the interwar years many private art collections were in danger of being sold abroad. Among them was the collection of over 11,000 maritime prints, drawings and paintings of the noted yachtsman and collector Arthur Macpherson. In 1927 the society launched a public appeal to raise the funds to acquire his collection. With the huge generosity of Sir James Caird the collection was purchased and formed one of the founding collections of the National Maritime Museum.

Macpherson had an encyclopedic attitude to art collecting and aimed to document every aspect of maritime history through pictures. The early Netherlandish paintings are particularly fine, including a late sixteenth-century allegory of the Ship of State and Abraham Storck’s ‘Shipping off Amsterdam’.

The surplus of the public appeal was used to create the Macpherson Collection Endowment Fund which continues to be used to assist the purchase of additional works of art for the museum. Among the works purchased are a large number of paintings, prints and drawings by the noted marine artist W. L. Wyllie and an album of drawings by Gabriel Bray from a voyage to Africa in 1775.

The following works of art are taken from the many hundreds acquired for the nation by the society. A new work will be published monthly.

Featured Piece: Dutch Ships sailing off a Rocky Shore (1610-1615)

By Andries van Eertvelt (1590-1652)

This painting forms a part of a collection of 79 early Netherlandish marine paintings purchased in 1963 with the assistance of the Society from the widow of Captain Eric Palmer.

Eric Palmer (1896–1961), a great character, was one of the Palmer shipbuilding family and was long connected with the Museum as its advisor on the early Netherlandish school. He amassed both a great collection and great self-taught knowledge after previously collecting old masters, which he disposed of when his interest changed to maritime art.

Ships sailing off rocky coasts was a popular motif in Netherlandish Art of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Here, in beautiful detail, we see a Dutch armed merchantman rounding a headland to the right in dramatic waves and wind. To its left is a small boat, perhaps the ship’s tender, which is being set upon by a creature from the deep. Three merchantmen close in from the distance. A theme of potential danger is made clear as well as the ship as a source of safety and hope. The subtle translucence of the sea is evidence of a new type of realism in maritime art in this period and the more abstract treatment of the landscape on the right is notably different.

The artist was born in Antwerp in 1590 and is generally seen as the first Flemish marine painter of the seventeenth century.

The Society has published a number of works on the history of this period, including an article from 1920 ‘The “Prince Royal” of 1610’ on a variety of portraits of the Prince Royal of 1610.

An article from 1950 ‘The Merchant Venturers and Bristol Shipping in the Early Seventeenth Century’ explores shipping records of the Bristol Venturers Society from 1610 to 1630; contrasting them with the lists of the Letters of Marque equally attributed to Bristol. The article contains transcripts of the losses recorded in their Book of Trade written around 1620 and a list of shipping from 1626.  The author explores further the attempts made by the Venturers to avoid contributing to government schemes for suppression of piracy despite the impact of the Barbary Pirates who as well as tackling the trade routes even captured Lundy Island, and took captives from near Padstow in 1625.

A more recent article from 1999 ‘An Instrument of Early-Stuart Sea Power: the Armed Merchantman Abigail c. 1615–39’ explores the life and times of the ubiquitous ocean-going craft that sailed from England during the early 17th century.  At times merchant ship, privateer and warship, the Abigail had a busy life spanning 24 years.  Sailing under the English and Venetian Flags  with voyages across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, from the Adriatic to the St. Lawrence, her story charts the international politics of the reigns of the early Stuarts, ending in a hurricane and shipwreck at St Kitts.