- since 2011 -

Love for sail

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Fore and aft through Liverpool's collection of maritime art

Vessels old and new in today's Albert Dock

Vessels old and new in today's Albert Dock

I went to Genoa once and looked out from the glazed fourth floor of its Galata Museo del Mare. It was sunny outside and like a greenhouse behind the glass but worth the importunate warmth for the views: from the south-facing windows of this modern boxy building, the glittering Ligurian Sea; from the north, the old town's crescent of colourful buildings cordoned off from its waterfront by a sweeping, elevated dual carriageway.

This was all very well but it wasn't the panoramas that most impressed me about the museum nor the full-size replica of a galley ship and display of medieval maps. It was the 19th century sextant from Casartelli on Liverpool's Hanover Street and chronometer from J Sewill, 61 South Castle Street, 'Nautical Instrument Manufacturer'. You beauties...

This is what I do in other people's maritime museums: look out for Liverpool stuff among the exhibits and even oblige on occasion, for instance presenting a photocopy of a page from the Liverpool Mercury dated 25 June 1819 to the proprietor of Savannah's Ships of the Sea Museum, recording as it did the arrival from the Georgia port of the first steamer in the world to cross the Atlantic Ocean. On reflection I could've just emailed it, but where's the fun in that?

I've been thinking our own Merseyside Maritime Museum gets overlooked if not taken for granted down on the waterfront these days even though it's only 30 years old, what with the nearby Museum of Liverpool becoming the city's cultural cynosure since its 2011 opening and the shiny Echo Arena pulling crowds week in, week out. Which is daft because if ever a location ticked all the boxes for a maritime museum it's the 165-year-old Albert Dock - specifically the north warehouse stack, one of five that make up the largest group of Grade I listed buildings in England, each five storeys high with a combined capacity of 250,000 tonnes (deep breath), all designed and built by Yorkshire engineer Jesse Hartley. 'One of the noblest and most dignified architectural ensembles of the era', writes historian Michael Jenner in his book Victorian Britain.

On the outside I like the sheer bulk of the cyclopean sandstone and granite slabs and the big but hollow cast-iron columns. Inside there's much to be admired about the Slave Trade exhibition, the Battle of the Atlantic bit and the great liners gallery, not forgetting the views - as good as Genoa - from the fourth-floor windows. But I like the paintings best.

Look closely and you can see Albert Dock under construction in Joseph Heard's 1845 painting Elinor Chapman off Liverpool, the brig's white sails offset by a roiling sky and the river at its most tenebrous. Like many of the 270 oil paintings in the collection it's a visual record of a vessel which might otherwise only be listed in reference works like Lloyd's Register (or at a push depicted on local pottery) and also a historical snapshot of the port and its shipping activity at a point in time, with other landmarks like St Nicholas Church and the old Customs House providing reliable coordinates.

This is ship portraiture with an emphasis upon technical accuracy - from the shape of the hull to the intricacies of the rigging - as opposed to the kind of 'academic' paintings of marine scenes found in major art galleries, like Turner's sublime Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), Aivazovsky's epic The Ninth Wave (St Petersburg's State Museum) and Gericault's rather grim Raft of Medusa (Louvre). Occasionally the two genres overlap to produce works of art like The Frankfield by Samuel Walters, now hanging in the Walker. This beautiful ship, which worked the Liverpool-Sydney passage till 1847, is depicted 'hove to' in a Mersey of marbling waves under pearl-edged clouds. (Apologies for not finding an online image of this, you'll just have to go see it for real; Google it and you only get the Labour MP).

<i>Liverpool in 1680</i> (artist unknown) courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Liverpool in 1680 (artist unknown) courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Another highlight back at the Maritime Museum is Liverpool in 1680, possibly by a Dutch artist and probably the earliest-known painting of the city or small town as it was then, looking out onto a river full of traffic. From left to right you can make out St Nicholas Church, the old Tower that belonged to the Earl of Derby (where Tower Buildings now sit on the Strand), Water Street itself winding upwards, and the Castle that overlooked the old Pool or inlet that forms today's waterfront entrance into Liverpool One.

<i>In the Mersey</i> by Max Sinclair courtesy National Museums Liverpool

In the Mersey by Max Sinclair courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Two centuries later Max Sinclair captured something of a last hurrah with In the Mersey. The year is 1889 and behind a paddle steamer, two graceful barques and a ferry the recently launched liner City of New York gets underway on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Fast-forward to 1957 and Aureol in the Mersey by John Stobart is a glorious smudge of creamy-white on lilac-blue that marks the end of local ship ownership, and with it traditional ship portraiture, in an age of globalisation and modern photography (for the record Aureol was launched by Liverpool-based line Elder Dempster in 1951 and sailed between the city and Nigeria until 1972).

You get the picture. Merseyside Maritime Museum: free to get in and full of good stuff. Spread the love.

* Thanks to Rebecca Watkin, curator of the maritime art collection

<i>Aureol in the Mersey</i> by John Stobart courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Aureol in the Mersey by John Stobart courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Exhibition stuff: three other places with great maritime museums

Gulf of Mexico - specifically the Museum of Science & History in Corpus Christi, Texas, which houses collections from around 25 shipwrecks including silver coins, cannons, anchors and the keel of the San Esteban, one of three treasure-laden Spanish ships wrecked in a storm off what's now the Texan coast in 1554.

Canary Islands - the old gateway to the New World boasts the Casa de Colon (Columbus Museum) and the Second World War-based Museo Naval de Canarias, both in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. There's also a replica of the Columbus ship Santa Maria on La Palma, a fishing museum in a lighthouse on Fuerteventura, and two pirate-age forts on Lanzarote.

Massachusetts - cast-off point for the once vast fishing grounds of the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic, and home to Cape Cod Maritime Museum and its nearby ferries to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and New Bedford Whaling Museum which celebrates both the industry's heritage (with four species of complete whale skeletons) and today's conservation efforts.

'Merseyside Maritime Museum gets overlooked if not taken for granted down on the waterfront these days even though it's only 30 years old'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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