Art, History, Liverpool Interest

Who were the ship portraitists and marine artists who worked in Liverpool?

A Dictionary of Liverpool Ship Portraitists and Marine Artists by Anthony Tibbles is an illustrated dictionary providing comprehensive biographical and artistic information about all the ship portraitists and marine artists who worked in and around the port of Liverpool from the late eighteenth century until the present day. To celebrate the publication of this new book, author Anthony Tibbles has shared some insights into the ship portraitists and marine artists featured in this new publication.

It is often convenient to style the ship portraitists who worked in Liverpool in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as ‘The Liverpool School’ but the only real justification for doing so is that they worked in the port and painted pictures of ships, which at first glance look quite similar. In fact, they were a diverse group whose experience and circumstances varied considerably.

We know little of how most of them came to be painters. Some of them had some formal training or were tutored when young by family members or other local artists. The most famous Liverpool artist, Samuel Walters, was taught by his father Miles and for four or five years assisted him with his canvases but he also studied at the Liverpool Academy for four years. The Academy provided training for a number of other artists including Henry Melling, Henry Dawson and George Stansfield Walters. Thomas Dove was given some instruction by George Chambers in his native Whitby and briefly in London and Joseph Heard was also probably taught by local artist John Cleminson, though little is known of the circumstances. Many seem to have been self-taught and to have come into the business from a seafaring background rather than an artistic one. Artists like McMinn, Witham, de Clerck and Stan Hugill were former seafarers and others who spent time at sea, included Miles Walters and William McMinn. This would have given them precious knowledge of the vessels they depicted which particularly important when undertaking portraits of sailing ships where the accurate depiction of sails, yards and other technical features was crucial.

It was difficult for the majority of these artists to make a living purely from selling their paintings. The average price charged for a ship portrait seems to have been between £5 and £8, probably about a month’s wages for the average working man. Only a handful of them, like Salmon, Samuel Walters, Heard and W H Yorke, seem to have been able to do so, even during the heyday of the Victorian era and only Walters left a substantial sum on his death, perhaps because he had more business acumen and, for instance, produced engravings of the ships he painted. Things probably became easier in the twentieth century. Artists like Sam Brown, James Mann, Odin Rosenvinge and Walter Thomas worked as designers for local printing companies, mainly producing publicity material for the many shipping companies operating from Liverpool. Others, such as Gordon Ellis, Keith Griffin and Edward Walker, got regular commissions from shipping companies but also produced paintings of historic vessels and crucially were able to sell colour prints of their work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the other portraitists seem to have had other occupations or at least undertaken other work to support themselves. A number of them had related work – James Aitken was an architectural draughtsman and John Hall was a naval architect and William McDowell worked in both those roles during his career. A number of them were associated with trades such as plumbing, painting and decorating or the supply of painting materials, including Thomas Dove, John Hughes, Joseph Butler, John Hughes, Charles Ogilvy, Charles Waldron and Joseph de Silva. Others, such as Edwin Brown, who was a chemist, were probably only able to paint in their spare time and had little opportunity to sell their work.

A few, such as Henry Melling and Arthur Cox came from more financially secure backgrounds and though having some limited employment were able to indulge their artistic interests to a large extent. They seem to have had limited interest in worldly affairs and Charles Cockerham, who was initially involved with the family estate agency, appears to have lived in straightened circumstances, certainly in his later years for doing so.

Artists, like Philip Osment and James Aitken, who produced more general marine work, such coastal views and landscapes, which appealed to collectors and a wider public, were probably more successful financially, especially in the later Victorian period and were able to sustain full-time careers.

Samuel Walters P S Banshee, originally owned by the vessel’s builder, William Quiggin (National Museums Liverpool).

The portraitists would have spent time around the docks and waterfront not only taking sketches and notes for their paintings but also keeping abreast of developments and seeking clients. It is likely most portraits were commissioned by those most closely associated with the vessels – the builders, owners and also the captains and sometimes the senior crew. Few details of sales survive and it is mainly by tracing the history of paintings back to their original owners that we know who bought them. Samuel Walters’ canvas of the Confederate paddle steamer Banshee was owned by the vessel’s builder, William Quiggins who frequently commissioned paintings of the vessels he built. Individual ship owners were important purchasers and from the mid-nineteenth century many local companies such as Cunard, White Star, Harrisons, Bibbys and Brocklebanks regularly commissioned paintings of their vessels for display in their offices where many remained until the companies themselves disappeared or were taken over and such items were of little interest to the new owners.

Not surprisingly, one of the main commissioners of such portraits were the ships’ captains who in many cases had a very personal affection for a particular vessel. Captain Edward Allen seems to have owned three paintings of ships he served on, two by Hustwick and one by Joseph Heard. The paintings sometimes illustrate specific incidents and Heard seems particularly to have encouraged this approach. His canvases frequently depict vessels in storms.

James Bell RMS Atlantic, one of a series of small paintings on glass the artist produced for fellow seafarers (National Museums Liverpool).

Some painters aimed their work at ordinary seamen. We know James Bell, who produced generic paintings on small sheets of milk glass, undertook at least two of them for fellow seafarers and Aristidius de Clerck’s watercolours were modestly enough priced to be affordable by most mariners – he sold two for £1 10s each and a third one, in a frame, for £2 7s 6d, in 1875.

Whilst all these artists had varied careers, perhaps the one thing that unites them was their love of ships and the sea and we are fortunate that so many of their works survive today.

Find out more about Anthony Tibbles’ new publication on the Liverpool University Press website.


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