Maritime tales - art and the sea

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oil painting of a ship at sea, with a port in the background and a rowing boat in the foreground

Elinor Chapman by Joseph Heard

Marine paintings have always been inspiring for me, Stephen Guy, as they evoke vanished eras with great clarity and detail. It is not just the ships that fascinate but the views in the background, including early Liverpool townscapes.

Liverpool’s artistic community goes back more than 200 years when talented painters worked in the port depicting sailing ships, often with the town’s waterfront as a backdrop. Merseyside Maritime Museum has remarkable collections of paintings which capture not only the romance of the sea but also the growth of Liverpool from a small port to a city of international importance. Most of the paintings are by artists who lived locally. They include atmospheric and inspiring pictures of ships owned and operated by merchants out of Liverpool as well as views of the town from the River Mersey. The majority were painted for the vessels’ owners, builders, captains or crews. They are generally very accurate and give detailed insights into ships and seamanship.

The earliest known Liverpool ship painting is dated 1781. Artist Joseph Parry (1744-1826) depicts a Liverpool privateer returning with a prize. Privateers were armed, privately-owned vessels commissioned for war service by the government.

Joseph Heard (1799-1859) was born and brought up in Whitehaven, Cumbria, and moved to Liverpool about 1833. In his painting of the Elinor Chapman (shown here), the barque is shown with billowing sails and fluttering pennants off the Liverpool waterfront. As was often done in marine paintings of this era, two views of the same ship are included in the picture. The other view of the Elinor Chapman shows her hove to and about to drop anchor. Heard often tilted the vessel slightly, as seen here, to show the crew and what was happening on deck – details which give his works great energy and vitality.  You can download a wallpaper of this image from our main site.

Other artistic peculiarities can be seen in the painting of the Bosphorus by Francis Hustwick (1797-1865). The sailing ship is seen in choppy seas with white horses (foaming waves) churning around her hull. In the distance are the well-known fort and lighthouse on Perch Rock off New Brighton. Hustwick rarely signed his paintings but his work is easily recognisable because he provocatively used a version of the Red Ensign which was scrapped in 1801. In that year the flag assumed its modern appearance when the red diagonal St Patrick’s Cross was added to the Union Jack. It is not known why Hustwick used the out-of-date flag as his hallmark, unless he was harking back to the days of his childhood.

We will look at more marine paintings next week.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.