Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clakson Frederick Stanfield

Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield
Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

In my last blog I featured a painting of a lighthouse by Edward Hopper and talked about how these structures over the years had helped seafarers find their way around coasts and enabled them to safely navigate treacherous waters.  However sadly for some they were not enough to prevent maritime disasters and all too often ships would, because of mechanical failure, horrendous weather conditions or human error, suffer the indignity of being grounded on rocks.  I remember all too well an Atlantic port we used to sail into, which had a very tricky entrance to it and was often pounded by the ferocious ocean waves.  As a stark reminder as to the care in which the entrance had to be approached there was an abandoned wreck of a ship on the sandbank at the mouth of the river entrance,  which did not quite make it and which was being gradually eaten away by sea and wind erosion.  I often thought, as I helped to steer the ship along the curving channel with a ferocious following sea lifting the ship’s stern in all directions, what must have been going through the minds of the people on the bridge of that abandoned ship that day, as they realised they were not going to make it safely into the tranquillity and safety of the harbour.  So today I have decided to feature a painting of a shipwreck by one of the great Victorian artists, Clarkson Frederick Stanfield.  Although there is a majestic beauty about this seascape, there is also a sense of sadness as I look at the plight of the sailors.

 The artist who painted today’s featured work is Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, who was born at the end of 1793 in Sunderland, England.   He was the youngest of five children.  His parents were James Field Stanfield and Mary Hoad.   His father was born in Dublin and initially trained for the priesthood in France, but abandoned his “calling” and returned to Liverpool and became a merchant seaman.  He sailed on a ship which was engaged in the slave trade and after his experience on the slave ship, which he described as “a floating dungeon”, he quit the life at sea, came ashore and became both an actor and playwright and an energetic supporter of the campaign to abolish the slave trade.   It is documented that he was the first ordinary seaman involved in the slave trade to write about its horrors.  In 1788 he wrote vividly describing his experiences on the voyage from Liverpool to Benin in West Africa and it was published as a series of letters addressed to Stanfield’s friend and a leading anti-slavery campaigner, the Reverend Thomas Clarkson.  It was from him that young Stanfield received his Christian name.  Clarkson Stanfield’s mother, Mary, who was both an actress and artist, taught painting and must have instilled the love of drawing into her son but sadly she died when he was just seven years old.  His father remarried to Maria Kell, a year later.

 In 1806, Clarkson Stanfield worked as an apprentice to a heraldic and coach painter in Edinburgh but left that employment two years later and, at the tender age of fifteen, decided to go off to sea and joined a small coal-carrying merchant vessel.  Four years later in 1812 he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy.  For some reason, during his stint in the navy he used the alias “Roderick Bland”.  Whilst in the Navy, Stanfield managed to keep his hand in artistically by painting theatre scenery for some naval productions as well as some painting and sketches.   In December 1814 he fell from the rigging of a naval vessel he was working on and had to be discharged from the Navy as being “unfit for duty”.    The following year he returned to sea on a merchant navy ship and sailed to China.  After returning home on leave, he had every intention of carrying on with his sea-going career but for some reason it never materialised.

 It was now 1816 and he found himself without a job and needing to earn some money and so he reverted back to his artistic work and managed to get employment at London’s Royalty theatre as a scene painter.  Soon after working in the theatre he met Mary Hutchinson whom he married in 1818 and the couple went on to have two children, a son, Clarkson William and a daughter, Mary Elizabeth.  Within a month of the birth of her daughter Mary Hutchinson died.   Clarkson Stanfield married again in 1824.  This time his wife was Rebecca Adcock and they went on to have ten children, eight sons and two daughters.  His second son from this marriage, George Clarkson Stanfield, was a pupil of his father, and painted the same type of subjects.

Clarkson Stanfield continued to work in various London and Edinburgh theatres and he gained a reputation as one of the finest scene painters in the land.   The Times reviewed his work in December 1827 stating:

  “…When our memory glances back a few years and we compare in “the mind’s eye”, the dingy, filthy scenery which was exhibited here – trees, like inverted mops, of a brick-dust hue – buildings generally at war with perspective – water as opaque as the surrounding rocks, and clouds not a bit more transparent – when we compare these things with what we now see, the alteration strikes us as nearly miraculous. This is mainly owing to Mr. Stanfield. To the effective execution of the duties belonging to the scenic department, he brought every necessary qualification – a knowledge of light and shade which enabled him to give to his scenes great transparency and a ready and judicious taste for composition, whether landscape, architecture or coast, but more especially for the last…”

 Despite most of his time being taken up working in the theatres he never gave up his painting of pictures.  He first exhibited some of his seascape work in 1820, and was immediately recognised as a marine painter of great promise.   When the Society of British Artists was founded in 1823, he was one of the founder members and later in 1829 became its President.  It was also in that year that he submitted his first painting to the Royal Academy, of which he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy and a Royal Academician in 1832 and 1835 respectively.  He loved to exhibit his work and, in all, he exhibited over a hundred works at the Royal Academy, and forty-nine at the British Institution from 1844 to 1867.

 In late 1834 he resigned as scene painter for Drury Lane and from then on devoted most of his time to his own paintings.   His output included works in both oil and watercolour and he specialised in shipping, coastal and river scenes.  Sadness struck the Clarkson household in 1838 when his eldest son from his second marriage, Harry, died just short of his twelfth birthday.  It was a terrible blow to Stanfield and many believe that his turning to the Roman Catholic religion was partly down to his search for solace and inner peace after his son’s death.    He made a number of European trips taking in Holland, France and Italy and while travelling, he would build up a large and extensive collection of sketches.  During this period, he completed many paintings depicting views of Venice and Dutch river scenes.

 During the last decade of his life he was beset with poor health. His rheumatism and bad leg often prevented him from going out of his house and the pain was so intense that for long periods he was unable to work.   He died in Hampstead, London in May 1867 aged 73.  One of his last visitors to call on him the day he died was his great friend Charles Dickens who he had met thirty years earlier.  After Clarkson Stanfield died, Dickens wrote of him, paying this glowing tribute:

 “…He was the soul of frankness, generosity and simplicity.  The most genial, the most affectionate, the most loving and the most lovable of men. Success had never for an instant spoiled him . . . He had been a sailor once; and all the best characteristics that are popularly attributed to sailors, being his, and being in him refined by the influence of his Art, formed a whole not likely to be often seen…”

The depth of friendship between Dickens and Stanfield can also be seen in a passage from a letter Dickens sent to Stanfield’s son, George shortly after his father’s death.  He wrote:

“…No one of your father’s friends can ever have loved him more dearly than I always did, or can have better known the worth of his noble character…”

The featured painting today is entitled Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck which is held at the Glasgow Museum.   In it we see dark storm clouds above the ferocious seas which are buffeting the large stricken sailing ship which has grounded on the rocks at the foot of a steep cliff, atop of which is a fort.  This structure could have been at the mouth of the river, which lead inland to the safety of a port.   A smaller sailing boat stands off from the stricken vessel,  probably trying to assist any sailors who are adrift in the choppy seas.  In the foreground we see two sailors desperately clinging on to what looks like the remnants of a sinking boat which may have once belonged to the large grounded vessel.  One of the sailors hangs on to the mast and is struggling to keep out of the water.   Three men perched on the rocks in the foreground are trying to pull this small boat towards them to give the unfortunate sailors a chance to leap onto the rock.  A woman also stands nervously on the rock, her hands covering her eyes, not daring to view the attempted rescue.  Maybe one of the men in peril is her husband or son.  A man kneels on the rock in front of her peering down at the stricken seaman, probably shouting words of encouragement.

The sea, in many ways, is something to fear and I have spent many times on ships which have been battered unmercifully by huge seas during ferocious storms and I end this blog with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s book The Mirror of the Sea in which he wrote:

“…The sea has never been friendly to man.  At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness…”