Hunt, Geoff. The Sea Painter’s World: The New Marine Art of Geoff Hunt.

London: Anova Books, 2011.

I’ve been fascinated by the Age of Sail, and especially by the warships of the Napoleonic wars, all my life, or at least since discovering my father’s shelf of Hornblower novels when I was in junior high. Even though I come from a family of strict landlubbers, I learned what I could about ship types and about the intricacies of sailing a tall ship, and I went in search of detailed drawings and paintings to help increase my understanding of what I was reading.

Marine painting is especially difficult, I discovered. “A ship is of its nature a highly technical, specialized construction, the form and the detail is of the very essence of the thing, and so that essence must be conveyed for the painting to convince.” That’s a quote from Hunt, and when you add that attitude to his obvious natural talent, you will know why he’s one of the very best painters of ships and the world of the sea in several generations. This is the second oversized book of his work I’ve acquired and if he does another one, I’ll buy that, too.

Actually, Hunt has two distinct styles: Indoor and outdoor. Indoors in the studio is where he carries out his commissions of historical and fictional vessels (he’s painted many of the ships and fictional incidents that involved Hornblower and Jack Aubrey), referring to actual logs for weather and sailing arrangements and paying great attention, as he says, to the details of rigging and other gear. But he began venturing outdoors for a change of pace and the result of drawing and painting from life is a bit more impressionistic. Both styles are, of course, to a very high standard.

Throughout, he spends nearly as much time discussing the technical artistic aspects of marine painting as he does the subjects he paints. The non-artist (which emphatically includes me) won’t be aware of just how difficult it is to depict large stretches of the open sea — highly reflective, constantly changing in both shape and color — and once you know that, you begin examining these paintings with a different mindset.

This volume of nearly 140 pages includes ships of all types and from a wide range of geographical settings and historical periods, from Tudor England through the American Revolution, up to the Royal Navy in the new century, and embracing tea clippers as well as three-deckers, sloops, small racing boats, and Thames barges. The arrangement is mostly geographical, from the Thames through the “home waters” of the Channel, and on to the Med, the Caribbean, and locations on the other side of the globe. This gives the book a continuity lacking in many collections of paintings produced over a period of time and it improves both the fan’s first reading and the student’s later study.

Hunt also includes six extended case studies, of which the most remarkable is that of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s ill-fated flagship, rediscovered in the 1980s and now in a purpose-built Plymouth museum. Hunt created what amounts to her official portrait and put in hundreds of hours of research to get his extrapolations right (which were necessary since only about forty percent of the ship survived, and none of the original superstructure).

Many of the works in this engrossing collection are emotional, almost musical, which is another measure of Hunt’s talent. In “Return to the Mediterranean,” depicting Nelson’s squadron on a dark and misty morning in 1798, preparing to descend on Toulon after a year’s absence, you can practically hear a slow, heavy warning drumbeat in the background. On the other hand, “Sea Cloud off Calvi,” showing the classic barque with a full, towering load of white canvas — six sails on the mainmast — has the feel of a soaring string quartet.

It’s also a bit remarkable that so many of these works are on the small side. “The Battle of the Nile,” set just as Nelson’s pursuing squadron catches up with the French invasion fleet at Alexandria in 1798, is only two feet by three feet, but its impact is such that it feels like it should take up an entire wall.

One of my favorites here, and I’m not sure why, is “Eyewitness to Trafalgar,” showing the opening moments of the climactic battle from the viewpoint of the tiny topsail schooner Pickle, stationed far off to the side and out of danger. This is also the vessel that carried back to England the news both of the victory and of Nelson’s death.

All in all, this is a beautifully produced volume of extremely high quality art that faithfully reproduces history. I’ve already spent dozens of hours with it and expect to invest many, many more.

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Published in: on 17 January 2016 at 6:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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