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Hulls And Hulks In The Tide Of Time

March 2023
1min read

The Life and Work of John A. Noble

by Erin Urban, John A. Noble, and Allan A. Noble in association with the John A. Noble Collection, 269 pages, $75.00 . CODE: NOB -1

The marine artist John A. Noble once refused to join an exhibition sponsored by the National Maritime Historical Society, explaining, “The work of these sailboat and historical buffs probably has its place, but I really hate like the devil to be confused with them. I draw only contemporary things—things I have seen and which I may have the background to interpret.” Born in Paris in 1913, the son of an American expatriate painter, he found his lifelong subject in the rotting hulls of abandoned sailing ships at Port Johnston, a onetime coal port on New York Harbor’s Kill van Kull. There he observed and recorded ghostly vestiges of the last days of sail.

The views reproduced here are black-and-white lithographs (Noble apparently liked working in a medium seamen could afford), and they appear with commentary excerpted from the artist’s essays and letters—which are fluent enough to suggest that Noble may actually write better than he draws.

Noble was by all accounts a difficult and irascible man. He railed against maritime museums as “little Disneylands” and scorned America’s frenzied embrace of Operation Sail during the Bicentennial, since the same year the Army Corps of Engineers was blasting and removing tall ships sinking in the mud at Port Johnston. In 1976 the last of the retired seamen housed at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island moved out, but in the eleventh hour, thanks in part to Noble’s noisy protest, the buildings there were saved. Noble’s drawings, prints, and writings are now housed there. This volume, a catalogue raisonné of his prints, also serves as a personal and idiosyncratic cruise through America’s maritime past.

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