P.S. sent me an etching, “On the Clyde at Govan,” and wondered about the history of the theme.
It is an image of toil, industry, grime and beauty. Here we see the tugs on the teeming busy port at Clydeside, on the west coast of Scotland in 1913. I say “grime” because of the coal barges, “toil” because the of the beleaguered seamen who heaved the coal, “industry” because of the huge merchant steam cargo ships and “beauty” for the splendid two-masted sailing ships or brigs that still sailed in 1913.
And I say “teeming” because the estuary at Clyde was home to three important ports near Glasgow.
The River Clyde at Glasgow port is shallow, but brilliant Scottish engineers (see “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” Arthur Herman, 2001) deepened the river bed, allowing for international trade, the development of shipbuilding and the steam engine. And the trade was indeed international, the shipbuilding the finest, and the workers some of the most skilled. Govan was a huge ‘feeder’ community for the port of 60,000 inhabitants in the late 19th century although not a very “upscale” place in the least.
The artist of this etching is William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), RA (meaning a Royal Academician). He loved the sea so much that he lived a large part of his productive life on a boat in the Lower Thames, and he painted sea vessels from his perch. And he fathered nine children.
His work is seen at the Tate, the Royal Academy, The Imperial War Museum, The National Maritime Museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Such a talent was he that he won the Turner Gold Medal prize at age 18. He sailed all his life, mainly in the company of his younger brother, also an artist.
A 1920 mural by Wyllie “Blocking of the Zeebrugge Waterway, 1918” was created in 1920 for the Royal Exchange, London.
P.S.’s etching represents a kind of innovation in the history of maritime painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries because it pictures tugs working the barges in a grimy sea with steam belching and men hauling. Artists tended to paint more glorious ships, not tugs, nor the Stumpies (barges with low masts), or ketches (two masted barges). We also see a hint of an early 20th-century leisure craft — a two-funneled passenger steamer, which, in contrast, was how the wealthy toured the world in great luxury and comfort, especially in a stateroom “above” decks.
My son Laughlin’s father, born not far from this location, says Govan is a grimy place, and one can only imagine the fumes and smoke from the tugs and steamships in 1913, as the world needed more and more coal, hauled on flat barges, with the “lighters” struggling under their loads of timber. The men who manned the tugs and rowboats were strong and skilled; and in the etching, we see them pushing the barges with oars, which also acted as rudders.
When this image was made, Govan, once an ancient Christian site (the Old Parish Church dates (archeologically) from 600-800 A.D.) was the home of Fairfield’s Shipyard, the largest in the world at the end of the 19th century, employing 5,000. During the two world wars, Clydeside shipbuilding was vital.
Clydeside, in fact, was bombed during World War II because of its strategic role.
Wyllie was famous in his day: at age 79, he mounted scaffolding to paint a 42-foot Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, unveiled by King George V in 1930 at the Royal Naval Museum in the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth. When Wyllie died a year later, he was buried with full Naval honors in a procession at sea, in the style, says his bio, of Lord Horatio Nelson.
A maritime artist has to be more than artistically talented.
He also has to understand the technical aspects of sea-faring vessels, tides, currents, wind and climate, and he has to understand the men of the sea, and how they commandeered their ships. What makes this etching so interesting is the variety of working boats in the image, as well as the skillful portrayal of ships appearing to float in water, as well as the “feeling” derived from the image of the industrial nature of trade at Clydeside in the early 20th century.
My son’s father tells me his great-grandfather was likely part of this very scene, and he has a pocket watch to prove it.
The value is $1,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.