All at Sea For an island race, British artists came to seascapes relatively late.
Art expert Richard Kay reveals what to look for in the genre
DESPITE A SCATTERING OF VESSELS amongst these dozen sea pieces, this is not an article about marine painting but it concerns the sea itself. A small village near Burton on Trent has the curious, unassailable distinction of being the furthest place from the sea in Britain: a mere 70 miles. For the residents of Coton in the Elms before the ease of transport made everywhere accessible, the sea was an impossibly distant and unknown expanse. For those who live nearer our coastlines, perhaps it is not surprising that our gaze so often turns towards the horizon. As an island nation with a tradition of seafaring stretching back over two millennia, the sea has determined the livelihoods of countless generations of Britons: defence, exploration, exports, fishing, sailing and recreation have enriched our measure, our treasure, our leisure and our pleasure.
Artists who have attempted to paint the seas around our shores have approached the challenge in different ways and, inevitably, with
varying degrees of success. It would be wrong to assume that the sea (like clouds in the sky) adopts so many different forms that there can be no false way to paint it. John Constable’s clouds have such a realistic, natural truthful ness about them that a poorer artist’s attempts at painting billowing cumulonimbus are immediately unreal by comparison. Much the same is true of the sea and, as may be seen here, the ocean adopts numerous different forms, hues and moods.
SEA CHANGE Sea painting struggled initially to make any impact in this country. It was the Dutch who introduced land- and sea-painting into our cultural vocabulary in the mid-17th century but, despite the Van de Veldes’ ambitious depictions of historically significant naval engagements, marine painting in general was considered to be less ennobling than history painting or portraiture. So minor a part did the sea play in the descriptive content of a picture until the late 18th century that it is thought that artists arranged model vessels upon artfully ruched silk so as to capture some semblance of ‘waves’. It seems that they were not even concerned enough to make sketches outdoors.
In addition, the appetite for sea pictures was small: Britain thrived on its rural economy until the rapid growth of mechanization and industry in the mid-19th century drew workers to larger cities and to ports for work. Even in the mid-20th century, it was not unusual for some poorer people far from the shires in (say) the Midlands to live their lives without ever having had a glimpse of the ocean. It was Dr Wattie of Scarborough who first suggested the health benefits of sea bathing in the 1660s but it took another full century before many people thought of dipping a toe for recreation. Margate often grabs the credit for being Britain’s first seaside resort but Scarborough, Blackpool, Brighton and Rhyl have strong claims too, based upon
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