Thursday, July 14, 2011

Painter of Maritime Scenes


The Two-Masted Schooner

The basic example is this popular fore-and-aft rig on the order of the J.B. LEEDS, featured in this issue. Superior to the square rig for working to windward and undeniably handy, they were hard on sails and gear in light weather and calms due to lack of control over the attendant slatting and banging.

As vessel sizes increased, so did the number of masts. The practical limit apparently was six and only one had seven, the ponderous and outsized THOMAS W. LAWSON.

------ from The Compass Rose, Winter 1983-84

Paintings and drawings, besides imparting beauty and providing cultural expression, used to be required as the visual documentation of news articles and events---there were no cameras in wide-spread use yet in the mid-1800s! Beside the written word enjoyed in newspapers, journals and magazines, illustrations provided a secondary means of communication, and today can be relied upon for details and evidence not given otherwise. The following article confers homage to a painter of maritime subjects who did not entirely avoid the human aspect in his images of ships. Be sure to see the section below “Explanation of Terms Used”, especially for the Mechanics Institutes, a 200+ year-old school for unemployed men in San Francisco after the Gold Rush.



Joseph Lee, Marine Artist

Hanging on the south wall of the Sailing Ship Deck and offering a fine introduction to it and the west coast sailing ships of the 1860’s-1870’s is the splendid portrait of the two-mast schooner, J.B. LEEDS by Joseph Lee.

The J.B. LEEDS is depicted sailing in the stiff chop of an ebb tide through the Golden Gate with Marin County shoreline and Point Bonita Lighthouse in the background. Several schooners run ahead and astern of her, one of which appears to be a pilot schooner. Built in 1876 by Hiram Doncaster, Umpqua, Oregon, the J.B. LEEDS was 229.16 tons, 123 feet in length, 33.4 feet in breadth and 9.3 feet in depth. She had one deck. Her principal owner was Joseph Knowland and her home port, San Francisco. The J.B. LEEDS was sailed for 29 years as a lumber carrier before foundering off Luzon, Philippine Islands, March 5, 1905.

This painting of Joseph Lee, a marine and landscape artist, speaks to us through its charm, meticulous detail, and accuracy. Old-timers along the San Francisco waterfront used to say, “You could rig a ship from one of Lee’s pictures.” (“Joseph Lee, Painter” Alice Erskine Putnam, Antiques, June, 1969). The J.B. LEEDS is no exception. There is a great amount of finely painted detail on this schooner seen to port. She is in full sail on the choppy, grey-green waters of the Bay. Her shrouds, ratlines, deadeyes, blocks and pulleys can all be clearly seen, as can the sheets of job, foresail and mainsail. One can study and admire the sail makers’ art in the carefully painted sail seams. A feeling for the structure of the ship can be seen in a portion of the bulwark on the starboard side. The beautiful, intricate gold scroll design on the bow stands out against the black of the hull.

Lee has painted a number of people on board, seven in all, including the helmsman, a gentleman with spyglass in hand facing the stern, and a man facing the viewer waving his hat in the air. Across the deck a gentleman leans against the bulwark. One wonders if perchance any of the figures might have been the painter. Lee has clothed his individual in bright colors and presented the cut of their clothing in detail. The short jackets, white shirts, black ties and broad-brimmed hats, reveal some of the fashion of the period.

The clarity of this painting is in direct contrast to the facts of Lee’s life, most of which remain shrouded in obscurity. Born in England it is not known just when he arrived in the San Francisco Bay area. Also unknown is his background in art, whether he had teachers or whether he was self-taught.

Lee began his career as a sign and ornamental painter, certainly a not uncommon way for an artist of that period to begin, considering the artistry in the signs of that day. He apparently worked in this capacity for a number of years, becoming an active member of the Mechanics Institute, where his work was exhibited at different times. In 1858, Lee exhibited a tin sign at the Pavilion of the Institute, for which he received his first public notice, and for which he was awarded a diploma and a bronze medal, according to Alice Erskine Putnam.

... Lee’s most productive period was in the later 1860’s and 1870’s during which time he was one of the foremost marine artists of the Pacific Coast. He painted both portraits of sailing ships and steamships, as well as a number of landscapes.

Joseph Lee died in San Francisco in 1880, leaving us a wonderful legacy of art and a fine record of the ships and places of the San Francisco Bay area.

---- Norma Munger.


This week's post features Norma Munger's article (Norma was at the time an editor of the Compass Rose) and her appreciation of a maritime painting donated to the Museum. Paintings in the Museum's collections can be viewed between 10 am and 5 pm, Tuesday through Sunday, see our web site here.

Books in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library are available for borrowing by Museum members. See books in collection in our online catalog.

More new book titles in the Library can be viewed at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library or online at New books and pamphlet this month!


Explanation of terms used: to expand your enjoyment of the article above, word meanings are taken, sometimes verbatim, from the International Maritime Dictionary, by Andre de Kerchove, 1961, or The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, by I.C.B. Dear and Peter Kemp, 2005.

Slatting: sails that flap violently in the wind.
Gold Rush: occurring between 1848 and 1852 in California, the Gold Rush was a time of exploration and development in the history of the West Coast. People from all over traveled to the state in search of a new life and to build their fortunes from the gold mines.
Ebb tide: refers to tidal movement from high to low tide.
Shrouds: strong wires or hemp ropes that support a mast.
Ratlines: small lines that cross the shrouds and form rope runs like rungs on a ladder.
Deadeyes: a stout disk of hard wood… used as blocks to connect shrouds, etc.
Blocks and pulleys: used for changing the direction of a rope or chain passing through pulleys.
Sheets: a rope or chain fastened to the lower corners of a sail… to help expand the sail.
Bulwark: the raised woodwork … running along each side of the vessel above the weather deck… keeping the deck dry and serving as a fence against losing deck cargo or men overboard. (de Kerchove)
Starboard side: the right-hand side of a vessel
Hull: the body of a vessel
Helmsman: also called steersman, wheelman.
Spyglass: a lens for magnifying the view of far-away objects.
Stern: the after part of a ship or boat.
Broad-brimmed hats: stylish in the mid to late 1800s, often woven from natural material.
Mechanics Institutes a nationally recognized school for men, it began in the mid-1800s.