- since 2011 -

Old Dock: a different view

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A painting. A mystery. A ping in the inbox

Anyone can be a millionaire, claim those books by business gurus with made-up names, but I reckon it helps if you're ruthlessly driven, slightly sociopathic and, probably, a bit of a shit. When I decided to co-write (the easy bit) and publish (gumph) my own book, on Liverpool's Old Dock, I read up on product-marketing for all of 60 seconds before coming to the conclusion that, for all the define-this-and-differentiate-that maxims, it's just about who can shout the loudest, put themselves 'out there' the most and push-push-push. Not really our style. We've stuck to tweets, blogs like this and word-of-mouth, and the book is doing fine. It was never about pina coladas, or getting caught in the rain.

By and large the feedback has been great (thanks again to Liverpool ONE for their without-whom support and the Maritime Museum for 'product of the week'). But there was one start-the-car moment: back at the end of August 2015 the book had been out less than a week when I received an email from someone called Darren White, who wrote that he'd attended a talk at the Museum of Liverpool as part of the Old Dock 300 celebrations over the Bank Holiday weekend and 'was both surprised and pleased to see [in the book] a copy of my painting on pages 16-17'.

An early sketch of the view across the dock

Gulp. This was the lovely and completely original artist's impression of the Old Dock at its zenith that I'd stumbled across online and whose provenance I'd tried without success to trace. We'd ticked off pretty much every historic image (courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Central Library Record Office and the Athenaeum) but this was different: a conjectural view of how the Dock might have looked 250 years ago, painted overhead and looking out to the river rather than inland from the Mersey. I'd put out tweets asking for help, had local historians on the case, but still no bite. Someone pointed out a signature at the bottom of the painting but it was tantalising unintelligible. In the end we ran an every-effort disclaimer in the credits at the back of the book.

Another study with guidelines for the artist

'Don't worry', continued Darren in his email, 'you have my permission to publish it'. He went on: 'I've been fascinated with the story of the Old Dock ever since I purchased Peter Aughton's book, Liverpool: A People's History, back in the early 1990s. But I was disappointed with the illustrations that represented it: there didn't seem to be one that showed its connection to the Mersey and the expanding town around it. I commissioned the maritime artist Geoff Hunt to work up some ideas. The final painting 'Liverpool Old Dock' was completed in 2012. It's based around George Perry's map of 1769, and the vantage point today would be approximately the view from the penthouse apartment of the Hilton Hotel, where I took a photograph from'.

How the current Hilton Hotel fitted in

Darren also attached preparatory studies and sketches to show how the painting had evolved. I fired back a reply not just because I was grateful for his retrospective permission but also because I wanted to find out more. We chatted via email and he kindly answered some questions. The first, about his own fascination with the Old Dock: 'I grew up just outside Liverpool but was always interested in the history of the city. As a schoolboy I remember peering down a shallow hole bordering Canning Place. It had scaffolding and signboards rising up from it, and the remains of old stonework with a rope carved on the side'. [This, it later emerged, was decorative masonry from the old Sailors Home demolished in the 1950s]. 'I am an architect (though no longer practising) so naturally interested in the fabric of the city and how it came to be, particularly the Old Dock: a grand Georgian project befitting a mindset that built the British Empire. I was taken aback by the ambition and genius of it all, using an existing tidal pool, modifying it to hold water and ships so that cargo could be loaded and unloaded at ease. It was the catalyst that enabled the town to grow and exploit its opportunities, many of them self-made. I still have the same sense of wonder about it'.

Satnav-style graphic of the perspective

So what was the story behind the painting? 'Geoff Hunt is one of Britain's most respected maritime artists', explained Darren. 'I was first introduced to his work from the covers of Patrick O'Brian novels like Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World, The Wine-Dark Sea etc. The idea for the painting was born out of seeing Geoff's reconstructions of historic events like the Battle of Trafalgar. I wondered if the same could be done with Liverpool's Old Dock. I met his agent then visited Geoff in his Wimbledon studio to discuss the painting, and it was completed in 2012. The plan was copied from George Perry's 1769 map of Liverpool. Canning Dock is shown as a tidal basin, the three graving docks are present along with Salthouse Dock, and so are the shipbuilding yards that were eventually replaced by Albert Dock. I thought the view from the quayside to the Mersey - and the world at large - was important, as you can see the embryology of the port's development'.

The painting currently hangs in Darren's home. He missed the boat (pardon the pun) for the Old Dock 300 celebrations last August but hopes Merseyside Maritime Museum might agree to put it on public display some time soon. I hope so too: it deserves a wider audience.

• Old Dock Liverpool: Where It All Began by David Cottrell and John Hinchliffe is published by The Liverpolitan (priced £5) and available from National Museums Liverpool gift shops, Liverpool ONE Information Centre (Wall Street), Waterstones Liverpool ONE, and News from Nowhere on Bold Street. You can also buy it here.

Maritime artist Geoff Hunt, famous for his covers on Patrick O'Brian novels, was commissioned to paint an Old Dock scene from 1769


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

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