- Historic Sites
The Seafaring Tradition
An English artist recaptures on canvas the American ships that once ruled the seas
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
The Stag Hound (left) was an impressive sight whenever she entered New York Harbor; she was so heavily sparred she could carry nearly eleven thousand yards of canvas. Stag Hound was the design of the eminent shipbuilder Donald McKay, his very first “California Clipper,” the precursor of a style of sailing vessel that earned worldwide renown. The year she set out on her maiden voyage to San Francisco —1851—was a spectacular one for American seafarers. A sister clipper, the Flying Cloud , made a record run around Cape Horn to the West Coast, and the yacht America sailed around the Isle of Wight and won for us, permanently it seems, a prize ever after known as the America’s Cup. “Speed,” as one observer remarked, “was the spirit of the hour!”
The clipper ship represented the culmination of the era when the United States was the greatest mercantile sea power in the world. By no strange coincidence the first half of the nineteenth century also marked the coming of age of ship painting in America, for just as prosperous merchants watched the horizon for sight of sail, so artists trained their eyes toward the sea. To be sure, American painters had depicted ships before, but they had usually relegated them to background vignettes in portraits of successful traders or naval heroes to identify the source of the sitter’s affluence or claim to fame. But as the Republic grew, experiencing the naval glories of the War of 1812 and the Tripolitan adventures as well as increased trade opportunities, the ship moved out of the background to become, along with harbor scenes, riverways, and seascapes, the proud focal point of a canvas. Whether she was a Navy frigate, a Salem brig, a Boston bark, a New Bedford whaler, or a New York clipper, the ship was the embodiment of adventure. The battles she fought, the storms she braved, the exotic ports she visited—all excited the popular imagination and the fascination of artists. To a great extent we know so much about this period of our history because the ship became a major theme for so many painters, including those as diverse in talent and style as Thomas Birch, Thomas Chambers, Michele Felice Corné, Robert Salmon, James Buttersworth, James Bard, and Edward Moran.
The days of sail are gone. The time when two warships would lock in deadly combat within sight and sound of each other really ended with the nineteenth century, despite a few minor exceptions. The era of America’s dominance in sea trade is no more. American-flag passenger liners have almost disappeared, and none ply the Atlantic. And yet nothing can stir the blood like the sight of a great ship, her sails taut in the wind, her graceful bow plunging through a wave. Even if only a handful remain, most of them training ships, the memory is ever green. Artists and illustrators still portray the ship in her heyday—some lured to the theme by the continuing interest of art collectors, others by the subject matter itself. Of the latter, one painter who is notable is Leslie Wilcox, an Englishman and Honorable Secretary of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, whose Stag Hound off Sandy Hook appears here and whose other works are reproduced on the pages that follow. Wilcox painted his first American ship in 1930 after building a model from plans published in Popular Science Monthly . This stimulated his interest in American naval history, and after serving in the Royal Navy’s camouflage branch during World War II, he seriously applied himself to ship portraiture. His library is extensive, filled with books on both our naval history and our naval architecture. His specialty is American clippers because, in his own words, “they were at the forefront of the merchantmen of their time, and I naturally wanted to paint some of the best-known vessels both for their achievement and their beauty.” In future issues we hope to share with our readers the work of other living painters who help to maintain the American seafaring tradition.