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 China War 1857, wooded creek with firing from shore positions (1857)

By Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (c.1819-1892)

This is one of nine watercolours made during the China War by Thomas Goldsworthy Dutton and the fourth of the collection already published in our Online Art Archive.

This image, from 1857, shows a British landing party returning fire as it approaches the shore.

Born in Hackney, Dutton went on to become one of the most famous lithographers of the nineteenth century for his exceptional nautical scenes and portraits. Although his work as a watercolorist is less well-known he was very talented and his work provides some important evidence for the nineteenth century.

The National Maritime Museum has an almost complete collection of his published lithographs. His original artwork is far more rare and this collection was purchased for the museum with financial assistance from the Society for Nautical Research in 1987.

The collection, presented to the National Maritime Museum on 27 April 1987, the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, descended through the family of the Hon Albert Denison Somerville Denison (1835-1903), second son of the first Lord Londesborough, who served as second mate and subsequently acting lieutenant on the sloop Hornet  1856-9 and briefly as acting lieutenant on Sir Michael Seymour’s flagship HMS Calcutta. During this period Denison was involved in the fighting in the approaches to Canton in January 1857, when he was wounded, and in the attack on the Chinese war junks on 1 June 1857, both of which feature in this collection of watercolours.

This set of watercolours does not appear to relate to any lithographs by Dutton and so is likely to have been commissioned by Denison in the early 1860s, and were perhaps based on Denison’s sketches made on the spot.

All of these watercolours are in particularly beautiful condition, having never been framed or hung.

As the effects of the Industrial Revolution were felt keenly in China. The Chinese Empire had not been challenged by its immediate neighbours for centuries. Traders were despised and all those beyond its borders were seen as barbarians, who owed allegiance and tribute to the Son of Heaven who ruled the world from Peking. In the eyes of the Emperor, moreover, the Chinese were confident in their self-sufficiency. The West needed tea and china, but the Chinese needed nothing in return. Britain, however, was still anxious to improve her trading rights secured after the First China War, at the Treaty of Nanking almost a decade earlier in 1842. The end of the Crimean War freed up ships in 1856 to be sent to Honk Kong to secure British aims with a show of force.

The fighting was particularly testing as the Chinese kept their forces out of reach in inland waterways and creeks, protected by shoal water, booms and fire rafts. With a draught of only three feet the Chinese junks were ideal for this type of warfare. As is illustrated in this watercolour, the Chinese ships were always well-positioned and any attack had to be made in open boats across an open stretch of water, with the junks waiting with 32-pounder cannon in their bows and ‘stink-pots’ at their mastheads which showered burning sulphur on boarders. The air was also filled with the sound of thousands of gongs beaten furiously to instil fear in the attackers’ hearts. After a number of fierce battles the war ended with the sacking of the Emperor’s Summer Palace and the Manchu dynasty in tatters.

The Society has published a number of articles on the Opium Wars in the Mariner’s Mirror.