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: The Action in Fatshan Creek, 1857

By E. Walker after O. W. Brierly

This coloured lithograph shows the attack at Fatshan Creek in 1857. This battle was fought during the Second Opium War. The First Opium War, fought in the 1840s, had ended with treaties designed to open Chinese trade to the West, but the United States and Britain became dissatisfied and returned in October 1856. Their goal was to achieve more favourable terms and to create such a shock that the Chinese would actually adhere to any new terms set. In particular, the British were anxious to gain access to China’s interior, to conduct business and missions anywhere they chose. In 1856 the British attacked Canton. A key moment in the subsequent hostilities was this battle at Fatshan creek, in which Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour destroyed a Qing battle fleet of around 100 war-junks in several different actions, all fought up the serpentine creeks that led inland from Canton.

The lithograph shows the boats going into action. A gig is shown sinking in the centre of the image, with a dog in the bow barking at the Chinese. Another gig sinks on the left. At least two of the gigs are armed with cannon in the bow. In the background are a fleet of war junks with sails furled flying a large variety of different flags. The image shows the gunboats approaching the Chinese at a narrow point in the creek where the Chinese had concentrated their fire. One eyewitness wårote: ‘Crowded with men and cheering lustily, galley and gig, pinnace, launch and barge came racing up. The scene [was] like a regatta but Death [picked] his victims as they passed.’ In the distance a British boat is shown under the stern of Chinese jink, men climbing aboard.

The Society has published a number of articles on British-Chinese relationships in this period as well as an article from 1981  that looks specifically at this action.

The Letters of Commander John Corbett, 1855–1857 is an account of two years in the life of (then) Commander John Corbett, constructed from his letters sent home, his sketches and paintings, and contemporary newspaper reports. It starts with the shipwreck of HMS Wolverene in the Caribbean in 1855 and his subsequent court martial in Bermuda. It continues with the commissioning of his new command, the paddle steamer HMS Inflexible, in 1856 and his epic voyage towing a gunboat to Hong Kong in record time. It gives his account of his time in China, including his involvement in the May/June 1857 actions of Escape, Sawshee and Fatsham creeks, and it concludes with his promotion to captain for his part in those actions and his return to England in late 1857.

The Royal Navy and the Developments of Mobile Logistics 1851–94 explores the first attempt by the Royal Navy at providing a mobile workshop facility in 1851 when the schooner HMS Spider was equipped with basic tools for making and repairing articles for the Devonport Steam Reserve. In early 1854, with the imminent outbreak of hostilities with Russia likely, the wooden sail assisted paddle steamer HMS Volcano was also converted to the same role for service in the Baltic but with very much more extensive workshop facilities. Two further iron screw steamers were then purchased, renamed Bruiser and Abundance, and fitted out as a floating mill and bakery respectively to supply the troops around Sebastopol and in May 1855 the iron screw ship Chasseur was acquired to attend to the materiel of the Army in the Crimea. Volcano also later served with the Fleet in the Second Opium War.