The scope of the book’s subjects is large, from large (a battle cruiser) to small (racing dinghys), from Mary Rose to modern, via the ever-evocative age of fighting sail - picturesque now; brutal in its day. We see the artist mostly in oils - beautiful reproductions of finished work and also sketches - but also, showing his versatility, in watercolour and other media.
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For a marine painting to be enjoyed by a seafarer, the painter’s eye must be matched with that of a seaman. In this Hunt is up with masters like Wyllie and the Van der Veldes. I own a painting by a recognised marine artist which I know was made from a newspaper photograph because I have the actual cutting; the setting is flipped left for right and shows two sets of davits to starboard instead of the three that should be visible, and so also I expect in the variant (HMS Norfolk) commissioned by the Prince of Wales. Hunt never makes a mistake like this; he paints from painstaking inquiry (which he explains in the text). Indeed his research is so thorough that at one point he manages to trip up CS Forester on a point of detail relating to beakheads. Another example is his heart-searching over not being able to fix the fore course tackline leads on the Mary Rose (although perhaps an idea of what would work might be had from the Mathew replica in Bristol, or the Santa Maria elsewhere). He is right to be concerned, for old shellbacks are devils for nit-picking. The retired Vice Admiral Curteis, who had trained in sail, happened to visit Portsmouth Dockyard shortly after the Victory had been re-rigged in the 1960s. His wigging of the Admiral Superintendent regarding mistakes aloft in Victory would have been good listening (but who will correct the 21st century re-rig?).
Hunt’s detail of rigging and fittings is meticulous; equally, in his work, the sea and the sails completely match the wind. The National Maritime Museum’s ‘East Indiamen in the China Seas’ shows a group of Indiamen each of which seems to have a private wind all of her own; although the detail of each is well depicted the painting fails to satisfy in point of seamanship even though the painter had been at sea in Indiamen for years.
Hunt does not only research the physical subject and setting of each picture. He also gives us the circumstantial history, for he is not ‘just’ a painter, he is no mean naval historian. Indeed he describes himself as a ‘history junkie’, and we are the beneficiaries of this in terms of all sorts of arcane points of detail. For the Nile and Trafalgar the likely customer will probably already know the story, but Hunt also covers some much less well-known incidents and engagements and has researched their detail thoroughly, expatiating on these so as to illuminate the resulting picture for us. He really comes into his own with the New England cruise of the Rainbow during the American colonists’ treasonous insurrection. Incidentally Hunt might enjoy “A Naval Career During the Old War” by Admiral John Markham (1883) as background to that conflict.
Put all this together and each painting is evocative. For instance, Hunt shows Victory leading the line into contact at Trafalgar. The wind is light; the ships lumber into battle at a knot and a half; so powerful is the painting, that the viewer can see in his mind’s eye the silent gundecks, the men prone between the guns. Soon will come the order ‘Stand To!’ (this is the origin of that order): all will rise up and, still silent, taking punishment from the enemy as it comes, will rake their first opponent with a rippling broadside which will leave almost as many French dead as the whole British butcher’s bill for the entire engagement. The disciplined silence will give way to roaring cacophony, as the great guns leap to their breech tackles, and battle is joined from the blood-stained gundecks of the Royal Navy. All this is implied in Hunt’s depiction of the lowering menace of the approaching ships. It worked for me.
Hunt explains and illustrates the difference between fine, exact work in the studio and rougher, more rushed and interrupted painting out of doors (let alone at sea). There is an interesting juxtaposition between sketch and finished work on p.134 (the fictional HMS Leopard). For me, the spontaneity and immediacy of the first seemed to have more power than the more formal treatment delivered to the client.
I was personally pleased to find a treatment of the Battle of Pulau Aur in which a group of Indiamen finessed Johnny Frog and beat him off in 1804. On a point of order Pulau Aur is in the South China Sea rather than the Malacca Straits but perhaps, as he is illustrating a Patrick O’Brian book, it is that author who has moved it. C Northcote Parkinson has treated of Indiamen in his “Trade in the Eastern Seas” and “War in the Eastern Seas” and Hunt may find more subject matter for his brush therein; for rigging detail if not for atmosphere there are the works of W J Huggins.
Many of Hunt’s subjects have of course been treated by others. Try Bill Bishop at http://www.bishopmarineart.com/ , or Google older artists such as Richard Joicey, Norman Wilkinson, or W L Wyllie, for some interesting comparisons (there should still be a good Wilkinson of D-Day, together with his sketches, in the Map Room at the Defence College of Policing and Guarding at Southwick House, Hants).
Will it fit your bookcase? The volume measures 11½” deep x 12” high. The standard of reproduction and layout is extremely high (as one would expect from Conway), although the colour balance differs between two separate reproductions of one of the paintings (pp 24 & 81). There is the odd infelicity of English but that will only jar for older readers. There is a useful index and a short bibliography. For those whose appetites have been whetted for a deeper background on sailing warships I would recommend “The Wooden World” by NAM Rodger (Collins 1986).
Eventually, for me, the deep sea is what it’s really all about:
This book (metaphorically) reeks of salt as well as oil paint. For those who have used the sea and miss Masefield’s whale’s way, or as a Christmas present for an old sailor, four anchors.
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The Sea Painter's World by Geoff Hunt (Conway, £30).