The art of the sea has always been the art of vastness—without edges and with potential for infinite extension. It is this immensity that has invaded the Reading the Swell exhibition; finding its way through the automatic doors when no one is looking and quietly expanding the walls. Like sailors, artists have laid soundings in this uncharted vastness. Reading the Swell is a small and pointed selection of those soundings that see fit to make sense of the sea.
In 1813, after the United States declared war on Britain, there was a battle between these two sailing ships outside Boston Harbour. The British captain of the Shannon, Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, is shown heroically, being rowed towards the Chesapeake in a stormy sea. John Wilson Carmichael has rather dramatised the event - it occurred in a calm sea and lasted just fifteen minutes.
Carmichael was keenly interested in the exploits of the Royal Navy and this work belongs to the traditions of marine painting, which emerged as a separate category of painting in the 17th century.
Born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Carmichael was the son of a ship’s carpenter and was apprenticed as a ship builder. However, he established himself as a painter in 1823, initially working with water-colours. He was employed by the Illustrated London News as a war artist to record the Crimean War and in 1859 he published The Art of Marine Painting in Watercolours.
‘Storm clouds, Blythburgh, Suffolk’ is typical of Margaret Stoddart’s growing interest in impressionism and painting outdoors while based in England between 1898 and 1906. The atmospheric conditions of the impending storm above Blythburgh have been rendered directly using wet washes of colour. Stoddart travelled widely, taking sketching trips to France, Italy and throughout Britain, often seeking out picturesque villages such as Blythburgh as her subjects. Stoddart enjoyed living at St Ives, Cornwall. The town’s reputation as a plein-air (open air) artists’ colony made it a magnet for New Zealand artists including Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Richmond, who visited Stoddart there in 1902.
(Brought to Light, November 2009)