Themes in marine art
The marine artists were traditionally tasked to show ships with harbours as a frame, or sea-battle settings. Starting in the mid-1900s, however, we saw new themes emerge, as a result of more freedom. People wanted play and fresh air, and the seaside provided it for them. For example, John Constable painted a Brighton scene featuring sea-bathing. The sea began to be seen as recreation. The rich adopted sailing as a passion, before the less wealthy later also began to enjoy it.
This movement towards our modern-day view of the sea as a leisurely pastime was emphasised in both wars. Marine artists served in ways such as recording the scenes they witnessed. For example, Peter Scott and Normal Wilkinson created warship camouflage schemes. Artists had a fascination with the dramatic and great subjects in heavy industry and shipbuilding.
It was at the turn of the next century that marine art began to revolve more around harbours and beaches, storms and seas, and with seabirds and fish. The sea has once again become a playground and a place that entertains various sports. However, it’s also a focal point of new opportunities to learn, as we are able to reach into the elements, to the deeps and reefs. Today and tomorrow’s marine artists will portray how they view these new challenges, new beauty, and new understandings of this fantastic new world.
Artists at sea
Artists at sea were dual-skilled. We see this in other fields, such as sport. Some football players make good managers and some managers were once quality footballers. Likewise, there are some sailors who make decent artists and some artists who make decent sailors.
In the days before photography, the ship’s master used topographic drawing to navigate with. He would use pilot books with coastal views, rather than charts. He would also often draw those coastal views himself. Junior naval officers were required to demonstrate such practical drawing skills and some artists even started their careers this way. The situation created a precarious balance between the world of art (as well as imagination) and the reality of our surroundings. Nicholas Park, a merchant shipmaster, made a number of Atlantic voyages. Some successful artists from the late 1700s served in Nelson’s battle fleet, including Thomas Buttersworth.
Artists have frequently journeyed to sea in order to record the world’s distant corners, from Keith Shackleton, who painted the ice fields and seabirds of the Antarctic and Arctic, to William Hodges when accompanying Captain Cook on his second voyage into the unchartered Pacific. A number of artists were spurred into experiencing the final Cape Horn voyages, such as Claude Muncaster, in the early 20th century: a time when it seemed like doom had fallen upon the square-rigged sailing ship.
In the latter half of the century, the marine artists who had spent the greatest time at sea included keen yachtswoman Rowena Wright, Royal Navy officers John Webster and Derek Gardner, Mark Meyers, who served aboard replica historic sailing vessels, and Grenville Nottingham, with 100,000 miles in merchant ships.