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: African Canoe Paddling Through Surf

By Gabriel Bray, (1750-1823)

This is just one of seventy-three sketches by Gabriel Bray that were preserved in an album and purchased for the National Maritime Museum by the Society for Nautical Research’s MacPherson Fund in 1991.

The artist, Gabriel Bray, served as a second lieutenant on the 44-gun HMS Pallas between December 1774 and September 1775 and undertook two voyages to report on British interests in West Africa including the slave trade. This drawing is believed to be from the voyage of 1775. The exact location is unknown but the Africans are believed to be either Fante or Krumen.

You can read more about Bray and see more of his work here and a Lieutenant’s Log for Bray’s Journey to the Caribbean in 1774 survives  at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The archival link is here. The Captain’s Log also survives at the National Archives in Kew, Ref: ADM 51/667.

The Society has published a number of articles on the history of slavery in The Mariner’s Mirror  including this important 1997 biography of James Ramsey, a prolific writer, a philanthropist and political activist as well as a naval surgeon and chaplain.

This article from 2002 explores the health of seamen in anti-slavery operations. Tedium interspersed with the dangers of working boats in high surf environments, attacks from slavers and local tribes, and the boarding of slave ships all lead to the highest incidence of illness and death in the Royal Navy. Disease was of particular concern, especially those considered tropical fevers such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever.   Diseases contracted from the slaves, lack of fresh food leading to scurvy plus the climate combined to produce an unhealthy environment. Understanding of the illnesses and more importantly their treatment was still developing, indeed some treatments proved more lethal than the disease itself. But this period does see the shift away from bleeding as a perceived cure for malaria towards the more effective use of chinchona bark