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: Captain Sir William George Fairfax 1739-1813

By John Smart (1742-1811)

William George Fairfax became a Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy in 1810 after a long career that touched on some of the most significant naval events and personalities of the period. He entered the navy aged eleven, serving under Augustus Keppel in HMS Centurion, the sixty-gun ship which had been the flagship of George Anson’s squadron that had circumnavigated the globe in 1740. Fairfax went on to serve with Mariot Arbuthnot and John Elphinston.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution Fairfax was placed in command of the cutter HMS Alert and was sailing in company with HMS Arethusa in the opening single-ship action of the war when the French frigate Belle Poule, in one of the most celebrated actions in French naval history, fought off her British enemy. In that battle Fairfax’s Alert captured a French lugger. Shortly afterwards, however, the Alert herself was captured and Fairfax spent the rest of the war as a prisoner before being released towards the war’s end

Fairfax was promoted steadily over the coming years and eventually became flag-captain to Admiral Duncan in the North Sea squadron. He stood by Duncan during the 1797 mutiny in the North Sea squadron whic had spread there from Spithead and the Nore, and then took part in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. This oval miniature, by the celebrated miniature painter John Smart (1742-1811) was created around that time. For his services in that year Fairfax was knighted.

The Society published a brief article on this miniature in 1991, written by the naval historian Michael Duffy and a number of articles on the events of Fairfax’s life including this article from 1937 on the role of William Bligh at the battle of Camperdown. The extraordinary story of the Elphinstons in Catherine the Great’s navy is explored in this article from 1998.