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Set Sail! The Art of British Maritime Painting

Trimming the Sails by Montague Dawson

Trimming the Sails by Montague Dawson. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

The sea has held a special allure throughout all of human history. It has long possessed a sense of mystery — for what lies beneath its surface and for what is found on the other side. From antiquity until the great age of exploration, it was viewed as something menacing, misunderstood and dangerous. Home to some of mythology’s most sinister creatures, from the kraken to sirens, its power was once a thing to be feared. Today, the sea can still be a sinister and powerful force, but now it also holds a romantic draw. Life on the open sea conjures notions of exploration and the ultimate freedom. And it is this romance of seafaring that often draws people to marine art. There is a purity in the beauty of marine art, which captures on canvas one of the most basic elements of life on Earth. Read on to learn more about the development of this highly collectible genre.

Calm: Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Younger

Calm: Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Younger. Circa 1655. The Wallace Collection (London)

The Introduction of Marine Painting in England

In 1673, two Dutch marine painters, Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son, Willem van de Velde the Younger, arrived in England and brought with them a new genre of painting. The Dutch Golden Age seascape painters’ best works captured views off the coast of their native Holland, particularly Dutch shipping vessels and marine battle views. By the time they moved to England, they had already achieved a great deal of acclaim, so much so that they were commissioned by King Charles II to engage in "taking and making draughts of sea-fights." The powerful example of this father-son duo effectively set the course for the next century of British maritime painting. They had a particular influence on the great Charles Brooking, an artist who dominated the genre during the 18th century. Browning was particularly renowned for his works composed during the latter half of his life. These early marine paintings clearly reflect the influence of their Dutch predecessors. Generally captured under calm conditions, the ships evoke a sense of grace and lightness as they gently float across the water. Subtle cloudscapes and shifting light is captured thanks to luminous glazes, while an overall sense of tranquility defines these works of English art.

H.M.S. Bellerophon Lying at Anchor by Thomas Luny

H.M.S. Bellerophon Lying at Anchor by Thomas Luny. Dated 1827. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Other British marine painters of renown, including Thomas Luny, Thomas Whitcombe and Francis Holman, followed in the footsteps of Brooking into the 19th century, when maritime painting would take a dramatic turn.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. Painted in 1796. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich)

A Distinctly British Style

The theatrical marine painter Philippe Loutherbourg was perhaps the first to break the mold of the traditional Dutch style of maritime paintings. His tumultuous compositions of violent sea storms and gruesome naval battles broke the calm that had defined maritime works until this point. His theatrical canvases found such great success in large part due to the place and time during which he created them. At the very height of his career, Britain had emerged as the top Western power on the global stage. It was the Royal Navy that was the country’s most decisive weapon in establishing the nation’s commercial and naval supremacy. The force was unrivaled in power, size and dedication to victory on the world stage. Loutherbourg’s marine scenes paid homage to the Royal Navy. Intensely dramatic, many of his works were specially commissioned to commemorate great naval victories such as the Glorious First of June (1794) and the Battle of Camperdown (1797). His large-scale works would pave the way for the tempests and atmospheric marine views of the English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner, one of the most important painters of his generation.

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Painted in 1839. National Gallery of Art (London)

Turner and Constable

Born in 1775, Turner is renowned as Britain’s greatest painter of tempestuous seas. Both his sensitive, luminous color palette and his expressive handling of paint set him apart from other painters of his generation. His style became increasingly abstracted over the course of his career; at a time when Neoclassical values of precision and verisimilitude rule the art world, his highly Romantic renderings of ships at sea were nothing short of groundbreaking. The English still love Turner to this day. In a 2005 poll conducted by the BBC, voters resoundingly selected Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (The National Gallery, London) as the nation’s “greatest painting.” The British artist John Constable, a contemporary and rival of Turner’s, was perhaps most celebrated for his landscape paintings, but also produced many outstanding marine paintings during his career. Constable revolutionized British landscape and maritime painting because he put down on canvas exactly what he saw, rather than the landscapes of artists’ imaginations that had previously dominated the genre. Light, shade, water and clouds suddenly became subjects in their own rights, and Constable often painted outdoors to directly capture these elements of his landscapes and seascapes. Though Constable and Turner had somewhat different approaches to their art and were chief rivals during their lifetime, they both evoke the same worship of nature that defined their artistic era. Such Romantic views were also seen in the literature of their contemporaries, the romantic poets William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.

Chain Pier, Brighton by John Constable

Chain Pier, Brighton by John Constable. Circa 1826–7. Tate Britain (London)

While Loutherbourg’s naval scenes reflect the supremacy of and pride in the British Royal Navy, the seascapes of Turner and Constable are the perhaps the product of another trend: the seaside holiday. Prior to the mid-18th century, most British people found little reason to visit the coasts, and many remained inland in England’s urban centers for the majority of their lives. It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that the great British seaside resorts began to rise in prominence. The social pleasures of the south and east coasts of the island nation soon became a novelty, as the more well-to-do classes of British society flocked to the seaside in increasing numbers. As the seaside became a fashionable destination, so too did it feature more prominently in British art. No longer were naval battle scenes or commercial shipping freighters the sole subjects of maritime paintings, but the country’s coasts became desirable subjects as well. Constable and Turner were masters of this genre.

Pounding the Waves by Montague Dawson

Pounding the Waves by Montague Dawson. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Modern Maritime Masters

After the turn of the 20th century, traditional maritime painting fell out of favor as British artists struggled with the rising Modernist styles that had taken French art by storm. While French Impressionism never truly gained favor in England, the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent would have a significant impact. Portraitists and abstract painters largely comprised the British art scene, though the seascape was not entirely abandoned. Artists of the Newlyn School, led by Stanhope Forbes, founded a social realist movement among the fishing communities of Cornwall. Reminiscent of the Barbizon School in France, the Newlyn School emphasized pure subjects and natural light, which brought them to England’s southern shores. Their depictions of the fishermen of Newlyn are among the most important British Realist paintings ever created. Thanks to a strong national interest in maritime affairs during the late 20th century, a great interest in marine art reemerged, particularly the ship portrait. A powerful Royal Navy and the British merchant marine, as well as a general awareness and pride in the nation’s maritime heritage, all contributed to the renewal of the genre. Perhaps the greatest marine painter of this period was the great Montague Dawson, an artist who was largely a painter of the ship portrait, both modern and historical.

Refueling at Sea by Montague Dawson

Refueling at Sea by Montague Dawson. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Dawson’s canvases represent a unique melding of British maritime traditions. His highly detailed renderings of ships at sea evoke the traditional Dutch style of maritime paintings, while his tumultuous renderings of the sea and the drama of the naval battle clearly pay homage to the works of Loutherbourg. He possessed an uncanny ability to capture the motion of the waves, the fullness of the sails and the atmosphere of the sea in his maritime paintings, which document the great clippers and warships of the 18th and 19th centuries. Lauded as “the King of the Clipper Ship School,” no artist has been able to match the painstaking level of detail and remarkable sense of realism as this maritime master.

Dazzled Ships at Night by Norman Wilkinson

Dazzled Ships at Night by Norman Wilkinson. Painted in 1918. Imperial War Museums (London)

Dawson rose to prominence thanks to his renderings of military vessels during the First and Second World Wars. It was a popular genre that launched the career of many marine painters, perhaps most famously Norman Wilkinson. Wilkinson worked as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News, and during the World Wars, he created a number of works that paid homage to naval vessels. An illustrator and poster artist, he also made an important contribution in the field of camouflage, having developed the somewhat controversial practice of “dazzle camouflage” during World War I. Though it was impossible to completely camouflage a ship at sea, Wilkinson’s “dazzle camouflage” was specially designed to visually break up the form of a ship in order to confuse enemy submarine captains. While this type of camouflage fell out of favor after World War I, it remains an intriguing footnote in the history of maritime paintings.

The Capture of USS Chesapeake by John Steven Dews

The Capture of USS Chesapeake by John Steven Dews. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Maritime Painting Today

As it moves into the 21st century, maritime painting remains a thriving tradition in British culture. Maritime artists have largely concerned themselves with ships and boats, but also with leisure vessels, beaches and harbor scenes. Chief among them is the celebrated John Steven Dews. The artist has gained critical acclaim for his incredible maritime scenes, consistently and masterfully depicting the majesty of ships on the open seas. Born in Yorkshire in 1949, Dews learned his trade at the Hull Regional College of Art after being turned down as a candidate at numerous naval academies. He turned to art to express his love for the sea, eventually building a sizable enough portfolio to mount his first exhibition in 1976. An astounding success, nearly the entire collection was sold on opening night, and Dews received 17 new commissions. Ever since his blockbuster opening, Dews has enjoyed remarkable success and critical acclaim, earning numerous prestigious commissions and awards to this day as one of Britain’s most sought-after living artists. The popularity of maritime painting shows no indications of slowing, as both yachting portraits and military scenes remain strong on the market. Click here to view our current collection of maritime paintings that capture the majesty of ships at sea.


References: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Vandevelde, William.“ Encyclopædia Britannica. (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Brook-Hart, Denys. British 19th Century Marine Painting. 1974. Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd. “The Greatest Painting in Britain Vote.” Accessed November 29, 2019.



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