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: Working Boats from Around the British Coast

By Alan Sorrell (1904-1974)

This unusual mural was created for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the brain child of the labour MP Herbert Morrison who wanted to create a nation-wide sense of well-being to counter the devastation of war, and to serve as proof of a nation recovered. There was a main exhibition in London together with thousands of local events and also a touring exhibition of maritime themes held aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Campania which served as the festival’s exhibition ship in ports all around the country.

The mural, made of five panels and which celebrates local fishing communities, was made by the artist Alan Sorrell (1904-1974). He had worked during the war as an artist, helping to camouflage aerodromes and make models of cities and ships to guide RAF pilots in bombing missions.

Sea-gulls hold aloft ropes which frame a variety of accurately-drawn coastal craft with crews of fishermen and animals, all conversing happily. A shark with a tag ‘Please return to the Indian Ocean’ drinks tea. Mermaids watch on. Such scenes were central to the idea behind the festival – they capture a celebrated sense of Britishness whilst at the same time promoting a key British industry.

Sorrell made several other murals including those made for Southend Central Library (1934), ‘The Seasons’ for Myton (formerly Oken) School in Warwick (1949–50), St Peter’s Church in Bexhill-on-Sea (1951) , the Festival of Britain panels (1951), the head office of Bovril Ltd (1961) and Lloyds Bank in Southend (1963).

The mural was acquired by the National Maritime Museum with the help of the Society for Nautical research in 2014.

The society has published a number of important articles on coastal craft including this article in 1941 by Basil Greenhill on the rise and fall of the British coastal schooner; this from 2006 on coastal shipping in Cumberland 1680-1740; and there was an interesting society lecture on surviving coastal craft in 1934.