Wet paint?

Here’s something a bit different. In 2011, this picture was sold at Christie’s in London, achieving the unremarkable price of £938.

shipwreck-picture

What is remarkable is the story of survival that apparently lies behind it. The sitters are unknown, but it was listed as a family portrait by someone of the English School in the 17th century. If you can’t read the inscription, it says:

‘This oil painting washed ashore at Rottingdean with other wreckage from the Australian Ship “Simla”, run down by the ship City of Lucknow, Feb 25th 1884.’

A quick internet search reveals that the Simla was on its way from London to Sydney when it collided with the City of Lucknow near The Needles on either December 25th 1883, or in January or February 1884. Reports differ as to the date. She sank off the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 20 crew, while  survivors were rescued  by the City of Lucknow and another steamer, named Guernsey.

We often wonder what stories an old painting can tell, hanging on a wall for centuries, silently watching history take place in front of it. What tales could this one tell? It not only saw history, it actively took part in it, travelling on a ship, perhaps being taken to a new home in Australia, when the vessel sank beneath it, and it drifted amongst other wreckage before being saved and brought ashore.

There are so many questions to answer. Who owned it at the time of the sinking, and why was it being taken so far across the sea?  Who are the family depicted? What date was it painted? What happened to the canvas after it was rescued, and where had it been prior to the sale in 2011?

The Christie’s auction page gives no further information than the above, apart from its size (12 7/8 x 22 1/8 in. / 32.7 x 56.2 cm) and that it is oil on panel.

It makes me wonder about other 17th century art that may not have been so lucky, attempting similar journeys to this one, but ending up at the bottom of the sea rather than on somebody’s wall. What is most moving, is that the painting may well be the only tangible reminder that this family even existed. Perhaps it held pride of place in their home, and was passed down through the generations as a precious heirloom. We may never know where it came from, or the names of the sitters,  but thanks to the watery rescue of a piece of canvas 200 years later, the memory of that one family was also kept alive.

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3 Comments

  1. This is positively heartbreaking.

    On a minor note, it’s interesting to see poses and motifs working their way through provincial painting. The father and toddler’s poses echo those of Lord Capel and his son in Johnson’s portrait, which in turn derive from Charles I and the Prince of Wales’s in Van Dyck’s (and I daresay they derive from Titian or one of the other great Renaissance painters).

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