Why have so many artists painted so many ships? The art galleries and museums of the world are filled with maritime paintings of billowing sails and storm-crested waves and wind-blown smoke stacks.
Life on board ship in the nineteenth century was not easy. Poor food, short commons, harsh enforcement of sea law, wet, cold, back-breaking work, poor pay, no social security, chronic health problems, danger, loneliness, pain … The romanticism of maritime art was not a feature of the sailor’s life but the ships and the seas where they lived and worked epitomised the yen for adventure. Maritime artists captured form and movement in paint, glorifying the vessels and shrugging off the hardships.
This selection of watercolour paintings is of ships that sailed to and from Whanganui and focuses on the days of sail and early steam, the 1840s to the 1900s. They capture the essence of shipping at that time. These maritime paintings are not just lovely images; they also give us an historical perspective. Paintings can exist for many hundreds of years. Think of the Michelangelos of Italy or the Rembrandts of the Netherlands. They are still available for the world to see and they still illustrate historical experience wherever they are shown; likewise these shipping paintings from Whanganui.
The Port of Wanganui
Shipping activity supported the development of the town of Whanganui. Its importance was appreciated by its population and idealised by the artists who left us this visual record.
The development of the town of Whanganui was due largely to the Port. The wharves were situated seven kilometres up the Whanganui River by the growing town. In 1855 Whanganui was created a Port of Entry with powers of custom and excise.
The waters were awash with ships. Whanganui surveyor G F Allen once recalled that in the 1860s, 65 ships were counted between Market Place and Castlecliff.
Plans were drawn up in the 1860s for Port improvements. In the next two decades a Harbour Board was set up. Significant work was done to deepen entry into the town wharves and two moles and a wharf were built at Castlecliff to open up shipping near the mouth of the river. Railways to and from the wharf sites were built, facilitating hugely improved internal transportation. The installation of a railroad linking with Wellington in 1886 did not suppress Wanganui shipping trade as it was still much cheaper to transport cargo and passengers by ship.
By the 1890s refrigeration had added value to the Port. Between 1908 and 1929, trade through the Port more than doubled and other industries such as woollen mills and phosphate works were established because of good port facilities.
Conserving our maritime art
Paintings need to be cared for. Sunlight, dirt, mould, insects, human carelessness and sheer wear and tear all take their toll. Museums and galleries reduce potential damage by providing optimal storage, handling, exhibition and security conditions for their paintings. Sometimes, however, paints, papers and mounts used may cause chemical or physical changes that result in damage.
The painting of the Stormbird was in trouble. It had been glued onto a thick pine board that had dried out over the decades and almost split in two. The glue had discoloured the paper and was affecting the image. Painting Conservator Louise Newdick of Wellington carefully, millimeter by millimeter, removed the painting from the board with the help of a mild chemical solution, cleaned off the glue, repaired some small tears and stabilised it to prevent further deterioration. It was then remounted and framed for exhibition, and later, storage.