I have chosen marine art as my subject because of a visit to the Maritime Museum at Grenwich and the Historical Dockyard in Portsmouth. It helped me realise the importance of maritime to this country and the impact it had on our history. Art plays a large part in helping us understand visually what happened and
documents key moments in history. Even on HMS Victory at Portsmouth it has a painting of Nelson in his dying moments placed in the actual position of where it happened. This dissertation is a look at how maritime art has evolved and how the greatness and impact of our maritime has taken a back seat.
Marine art – shallow or deep?
If you look at early Tudor marine art you can see that it was quite common to see a portrait of a boat builder standing next to his newly built boat or an Admiral standing in the foreground with war ships in the distance. The majority of marine paintings then were more about recording a moment in history or an achievement rather than a piece of meaningful art. As well as portraits of people they talk about portraits of ships. A lot of the artists that were painting the ships would have been naval officers trained to use precise penmanship while being taught navigation and keeping logs which would develop in to a talent for art. They would then move on to ship portraiture. Although they are skillfully produced paintings they are more like a photograph in terms of their function. Some better marine art touches upon more sensitive subjects such as slavery, a well known piece by Turner – The Slave Ship which supports his belief of the abolition of slavery which offers much more depth of thinking. This was unusual as this type of marine subject was not entertained as it was a negative look at an active trade which was a major source of income for the rich, who also purchased works of art. Even today, marine art is the pretty picture, sometimes created in a realistic, technical or stylised painting but produced for looks rather than substance. The artists that have given us substance are the artists that didn’t specialise in marine but covered a variety of subjects and took a different approach to painting.
Marine art – not just boats
Great britain, a country surrounded by water was obsessed by the sea which gave artists a variety of subjects to work with such as discovery, war, religion, trade, culture and slavery. Most of these subjects were portrayed in a proud glorious way and didn’t offer any depth of thinking – what you see is what you get. Even today, most marine art is created by people with a passion for marine and art is a way to express that. The Royal Society of Marine Artists (RSMA) is a prime example. These paintings are more of a technical study stemming from a passion for marine.
Marine today plays a very different role. Marine is seen as leisure with sailing and cruising. With our strong tradition in the Navy we still have a reasonable size fleet of war ships. A lot of freight is still transported by ships as well as oil. The most popular for artists today would be sailing boats and modern war ships, again routed from a passion for marine. Marine art for me is equally about what you rarely see – erosion, discarded boats and equipment, boats in dry dock, rusty marine equipment etc.
Early Marine art
– Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) Peter Pett and the Sovereign of the Seas
This oil painting by the Dutch painter Peter Lely is typical of the time. This is a recorded moment in time showing Peter Pett who was responsible for building Charles 1’s ship ‘Sovereign of the seas’ launched in 1637. This painting shows off the detailed carvings which was ordered by Charles 1’s in black and gold. This is a painting of great skill and detail and gives a romantic view of this great achievement which I imagine was commissioned by Peter Pett the ship builder, so that he could hang it in his home to boast of this great achievement. In my opinion the composition is not that of an artist, it is divided in two halves, ship and ship builder. You can imagine the brief to the artist as ‘I want a picture of me on one side, and the ship on the other’.This is a great painting, but with no message apart from ‘Haven’t I done a great job building this ship’ and ‘look who the customer was’. This is like a boat builders portfolio. Boat builders today would have a website or brochure showing photographs of their boat building achievements, which is why I think this is more of a photograph than a painting.
– English School (16th century) English ships and the Spanish Armada 1588
Again, this painting is recording a moment, this time it’s a war. This painting portrays the complete Armada campaign, not just one part. If you look closely in the foreground, the Spanish ship in the middle has a Jester on board led by a preacher/monk suggesting a ‘ship of fools’. This for me adds a bit of humour and makes this painting more interesting. You start to look at the rest of the painting to see what else the painter might be trying to say. This is a bold design piece in strong colours, and uses tone and scale to create the perspective. The ships seem more stylised rather than a true likeness The layout is unusual and doesn’t look as if it was painted by an experienced painter. It almost looks like a wallpaper design due to the repeat design of the ships and the amount shown. Although I describe it as rich in colour, there isn’t a lot of colour, more brown and cream with a touch of red. I imagine this was commissioned to record a great victory and will hang over the fireplace of the victor. This painting doesn’t quote a name but the ‘English School’ which might suggest it was painted by a trainee artist which would account for the more stylised, slightly naive look.
Marine art – just a pretty picture?
– Bernard Gribble (RMSA), Nelson boarding the Victory at Portsmouth
Bernard Gribble is a member of the Royal Maritime Society of Art (RMSA), which is a group of artists who specialise in Maritime. The majority of the work produced is through a passion for maritime and an artistic skill more technical than conceptual. This painting skillfully produces great detail and knowledge from investigation and research and possibly not from live observation. The painting is pleasing to the eye, but has certain design flaws which let it down. The boat in the foreground has been positioned awkwardly and ruins the layout and design. The artist is more interested in the detail and technical information than the form and layout. This painting is recording a moment in time, not anything conceptual or meaningful – but more hobby alongside artistic talent. This type of painting is going to be purchased and hung on the wall of somebody who has a similar passion for maritime art and will not recognise the flaws, but will appreciate the accurate detail
and artistic skill.
Marine art – a greater depth of thinking.
– The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, Dali
Dali started this painting in 1958 and finished in 1959. It is 14 feet tall and over 9 feet wide. It portays the event metaphorically rather than historical accuracy. Columbus is shown to be young rather than middle-aged when he discovered America because he wanted to depict a young continent with its best years ahead of it. Dali had a strong interest in Roman Catholic mysticism which is why the painting depicts him bringing Christianity to America. Dali often used his wife Gala to pose as the Virgin Mary. In the background is the painter himself posing as a kneeling monk holding a crucifix.Dali believed that Columbus was a Catalonian which is represented by the old Catalonian flag. In the centre foreground is a brown sperical sea urchin which Morse (the person who commisioned the painting for his offices in New York), asked Dali to remove it because he didn’t like it. Dali told him it was an important part of the painting and he must think about keeping it. Morse 10 years later was watching the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on tv and suddenly realised what the sea urchin was all about. This sea urchin represented americans discovering other planets.
This painting is a perfect example of what a great painting really is. It is not only visually and technically brilliant, it has great depth to it in terms of meaning. It took Morse ten years to understand just one part of it, and there is a sea of ideas in this large painting. There is a whole year of thinking and painting on this canvas and the final result is breathtaking.
Marine art – a greater depth of thinking.
The painting by Turner ‘The Slave Ship’ shows the 18th century slave traders throwing the dead and dying slaves overboard in to the Alantic Ocean to claim insurance for drowning. Turner painted this sensitive subject because he supported the abolitionist campaign. The stormy sea and the weird sea creatures are natures forces punishing the guilty. The power of this painting is the use of colour and the way the sea and the sky merge together swallowing the ship. In the foreground you can see shackled hands of the slaves in the water. This was a brave painting to create knowing the reaction it would get. Turner wasn’t creating just a brilliant piece of art but a powerful statement about his beliefs in human rights. This probably was not created to be sold, but to give exposure to a delicate subject to help people understand what was really going on. This painting was one of many maritime paintings by Turner, all of which are highly recognised in the art world. Turner was not an artist that would focus just on accurate detail of the ship but offer great meaning to his work. It’s a bit like the difference between a pop song, and a piece of classical music.
Other maritime paintings by Turner
What have I discovered?
Marine art in the early years covers a wide range of important subjects that changed and developed the world. Discovery of other countries, navigation. a round world, not flat. world trade, new
cultures discovered, religious battles at sea, slavery, new food types. Despite all this interesting
subject matter a lot of marine artist seemed to concentrate on capturing a moment in history or a great achievment in a photographic style, very few gave a great depth of thinking and meaning to their paintings. The artist most likely to do a great technical piece of artistry are the one’s who have a passion for marine. The artists that look at a range of subjects and their passion is painting offer more depth of thinking.
The marine artist sees something completely different today. What was a proud glorious moment in history in terms of subject matter is now more about leisure. We are not fighting, trading and
discovering, we are taking it easy, relaxing, enjoying the sea. We are sailing, cruising, enjoying all things marine. The piece of work that stands out to me the most is by Dali – the discovery of America. I like the look and feel of the painting, Ilike the way he has incorporated many ideas that aren’t obvious or literal, but give the viewer a challenge to discover the thinking behind the painting and beyond. This painting is what has influenced me the most and will help me construct a meaning ful piece of art that will be interesting and challenging.
My final Marine painting – what will it be?
After discovering the Dali painting, this was a direction I wanted to go in. I like the amount he was able to say without creating a page of clutter. He has managed to design it in a way that includes a variety of complex imagery that doesn’t fight with each other. In terms of what the painting has to say I wanted to get across the way maritime art had changed, how maritime was viewed as a major part of our history and how it is viewed today – freight, leisure etc. I want incorporate some key
elements associated with maritme history to get across a variety of messages.