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, a sunset sky, a round fort with pointed tower. (1857)

By Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (1820-1891)

This is one of nine watercolours made during the Second Opium War (1856-60) by Thomas Goldsworthy Dutton.

The British defeated the resistance of the Qing Dynasty, legalised the lucrative trade in opium and created a permanent diplomatic presence in China for Britain as well as France and Russia.

A key moment in the war was the capture of Canton (modern day Guangzhou) in 1857. Legally the British were allowed access to Canton but were then barred by the viceroy, Ye Mingchen. Canton was bombarded from the river by a combined British and French force, before troops captured with ease a fort near the city. The British army subsequently swiftly captured and occupied Canton itself. The ease with which the city fell was one of the reasons for the subsequent Treaty of Tientsin the following year which opened up more Chinese ports to British trade, permitted access for Christian missionaries and effectively ended the war.

This image shows a moment of peace in the beautiful surroundings of the Pearl River. The sun sets casting an orange glow to a round fort with pointed tower on an island. A traditional junk sails by.

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

Born in Hackney, the artist Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (1820-1891)  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 maritime world.

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.