Maritime Art in the South West, Plymouth Art Gallery, 21st March 2009
Some 57 members and visitors attended a day devoted to maritime art, in the apt surroundings of Plymouth Art Gallery and Museum.
Cathy Wallace introduced Cornish art. In early painting, ships were very much part of the landscape, rather than a subject in themselves. Later artists such as Turner revelled in strong lighting and dramatic scenes.
She then talked about Henry Tuke. Tuke was from a well off background, but ran off to sea after Harrow. He came to Falmouth after an inheritance, and became a major figure on the local scene. He loved sailing, and often painted local fishermen. He was also interested in figures, and the challenge of life painting outdoors, and did many paintings of boys swimming.
Tuke bought Julie of Nantes, a run down vessel, and turned her into a floating studio. By the 1890’s he had become quite famous, with paintings such as All hands to the pumps now in the Tate. He was a master of the grey sky, and in his later years painted the last of the great sailing ships that called at Falmouth, including Cutty Sark.
Member Robert Jones then introduced the work of a very different artist, Alfred Wallis. Wallis, unlike most of the artists, painted entirely from memory, not starting till after his wife died in when he was 70. Born in 1855, he came from a poor background, and went to sea young. This had been disputed but Robert had checked the crew lists, and. he had indeed sailed to Newfoundland.
His naive style was very different from more representational painting. He often took an aerial perspective. He was not representational accurate, but his experience of icebergs and the Newfoundland spring was accurately represented. He returned to Devon, married a widow, and set up in a marine stores business, (not, as was sometime alleged, rags and bones).
He painted on many materials, card, bellows, and jars and used ordinary household paint, and was prolific, sometimes painting as many 3-4 a day. He never studied, but was highly regarded by Nicholson and others who admired the energy and life in his painting. He was described as someone " known yet not known”. He became influential in the St Ives art world, and was much copied. Robert has published a book on him.
David Hale then talked about Percy Thurburn. Like Tuke, he came from a well-heeled background, and never sold a painting, just giving his work away. As a boy David had known him well, and he was generous but at times very eccentric. His early life at sea had included gun running. He built himself a very isolated house on the Tamar, without amenities, and had once, unaware who his visitor was, scared off the vicar with a shotgun. Described as a “friendly old lion “ he liked to do landscapes and marine scenes with “ a spot of sunshine”.
Jane Baker then introduced a selection of paintings of South Devon, many from the Museum’s own collection. She noted that the up to the 17c maritime painting was incidental to landscape, and a poor relation of religious and history mythological painting. The Dutchman Van der Veldt, Peter Monamy, Nicholas Pocock and others led the first true maritime painting in the 18c. and focussed on dramatically lit shipwrecks, as well as local scenes such as the lighthouse and ship launches, giving more historical content. We also saw the development of ship portraits such as Spencer’s Toxteth.. More paintings from the Plymouth collections were by Butterworth and Condy with again an emphasis on the dramatic, e.g. battles and a chase of a smuggling lugger. Later in the 19c. the wreck of the Kent became a popular subject. An unusual subject was Luscombe’s portrayal of the Russian fleet with crossed spars, in mourning for the Czar’s son. Some paintings were as recent as WW II and the arrival of ex US destroyers.
Our last speaker was member Mike Myers. He presented a personal selection of paintings from the post war era, mainly by members of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, of which Mike is past president. The Society accepts any subject that is or relates to salt water- lakes, rivers, and canals are excluded. Styles and subjects varied widely, but they were all impressive and beautiful pictures, and most of us would have to think carefully before commissioning the more successful artists whose work fetches substantial amounts.
The overall impression was that despite a considerable number of artists being self-taught, the South West had made a very significant contribution to maritime art, as well as producing some memorable characters. Our thanks to Julia Creeke and the Museum for a fascinating and wide ranging day.
Reported by Anon
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