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: H.M. Screw Steamer Niger Towing the Paddle Steamer Basilisk, 1849

By Lithograph by J.R. Robbins after H. Sewell c.1849

This lithograph is inscribed: ‘Towing stern to stern each vessel exerting her utmost power in opposite directions. This trial of power between the Paddle Wheel & Screw took place in the English Channel on the 20th June 1849, and lasted one hour in which time the ‘Niger’ towed the ‘Basilisk’ at the rate by patent Log, or 1.466 Knots per hour. Both ships constructed by Oliver Lang Esqre Royal Dock Yard Woolwich’.

This depicts one several trials carried out in the summer of 1849 to test the relative efficiencies of propeller vs paddle wheels as a means of marine propulsion. The results were so heavily in favour of screw propulsion that these trials effectively sealed the fate of the paddle wheel.

Both vessels used in the this experiment were built by Oliver Lang, Master Shipwright at Woolwich 1826-53. Lang was responsible for the majority of the UK’s early designs for steam paddle vessels, his specialisation beginning with the Comet of 1821, the Royal Navy’s first effective steam-powered vessel.

The inscription also mentions that the Niger is equipped with the ‘Smith’s Screw’. This refers to the 1836 patent of Francis Pettit Smith, a man with a fascinating history. Smith was a farmer and self-taught engineer who, as a boy, became fascinated with model ships. In 1834, on a reservoir near his farm, he demonstrated that a model boat could be propelled with a screw under the stern – in this case driven by a spring. He went on to found the Propeller Steamship Company which bult the world’s first successful screw-propelled steamship, ss Archimedes.

The image is signed H. Sewell R.N. on a piece of floating debris in the foreground.

The Society has published a number of articles on this important period and the development of marine engines.

The Transition from Paddle-Wheel to Screw Propeller’ demonstrates how, compared with other nations, the eighteenth century Royal Navy was markedly slower in adopting new propulsion technology, initially resisting steam in favour of sail and later the screw propeller over the paddlewheel. This paper explores the battle between scientific innovation and practical application during this period and explores the reasons, both political and military, behind this pedestrian approach to modernisation.

SS THETIS, 1857, A Daring Experiment’ demonstrates how early steam navigation was restricted to river, coastal and short sea passages. Many improvements were required before ocean travel became viable for steamships, due to the low efficiency of their engines. The iron-screw steamship Thetis, built on the River Clyde in 1857, represented a daring stage in the process of engine improvement. Her compound engine used steam at the phenomenally high pressure for the day of 115 psi, not reached again until another quarter of a century had passed. Though the experiment was a failure, it showed the way, with better materials and engines, to future developments.

The Ability of Steam Powered Sailing Battleships to go to Windward’ is an account of the engagement between British forces in the Gulf of Finland and the Russian navy, leading to a discussion of the handling of early steam-assisted screw propelled vessels.