Rafts or boats, in some form or another, will likely have existed at least some 50,000 years ago. And sooner or later, along came marine art. The earliest visual reference we have of a boat dates back 8,000 years; since that time, artists have depicted boats, ships, seashores, and, of course, the ocean. It seems that whatever lies beneath the sea is fair game when it comes to inspiration.
For hundreds of years, the source of man’s relationship with the sea has been the ship. The sea, feared and unknown, was the element of danger over which global trade was transported and the power a nation may wield was extended. The vessel build for water made it all possible, acting as a tool for great change.
Merchant pride and king’s ships
It’s of little surprise, therefore, that artists have long glorified ships- sometimes even seeing them as heroic vessels taking on the storm, passing aesthetic visions, or grandiose floating castles. The reality was, too, that they were giving the market what it wanted. Admirals and kings asked for their ships to be drawn and for victorious battles to be recorded. Then there were shipping merchants who asked for their favourite ships to be immortalised, and who later needed posters and paintings in order to sell shipping lines.
Today’s ships tend to lack the grandeur of the ocean liners from the 1930s and the beauty of clipper ships, but they still manage to inspire the artists. And they still manage to embody the magic of man’s venture across the waters.
Marine art in Britain
The arrival of the Dutch painters in 1673 brought a specialised style of marine art to England. Their work influenced marine art in Britain for a century. At the culmination of that century, we saw the classical balance of artists like Charles Brooking. Philippe Loutherbourg, a theatrical painter, disrupted this calm, making way for Turner’s tempests and atmospheric golden veils. In the mid-19th century, Thomas Somerscales breathed new life into British marine art with naturalistic and new ways of painting the ships’ sails, along with the sea itself.
While the sea, as well as the seaside, were themes that were used often in French Impressionism, that particular movement bore minimal influence in Britain. A group of artists from Newlyn School created a movement in the early-20th century revolving around social realism in Cornwall’s fishing communities. Their focus on strong painting and drawing skills continued throughout, and beyond, the first half of the century.
The interest in Britain in anything maritime-related was high in the first third of the 20th century. This was due to having a strong Royal Navy: from the substantial worldwide significance of the British merchant marine, from a greater sense of the importance of maritime heritage culminating in the preservation of the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory, from the impressive transatlantic passenger nines, and from interests in yachting. This resulted in an abundance of marine art and ultimately in 1939, the Foundation of the Society of Marine Artists. Marine art was especially popular during the war years, with Normal Wilkinson being the most revered artist of that gen.