Salute to John Chancellor, Maritime Painter
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To my mind John Chancellor ranks with the finest maritime painters who’ve ever lived. I regret that he’s not as well known as he deserves to be but a Retrospective Exhibition later this month in the Devon town of Brixham should go some way to putting that right. It’s being held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death, sadly at the relatively young age of 59.
Born in Portugal, Chancellor showed a strong talent for drawing as a child and won various awards.
Struck with a burning desire to work on boats he ran away to sea when he was 14 but after several days ‘awol’, was persuaded to return home.
When war broke out he joined the merchant navy as an apprentice officer, aged 16. He then spent thirty years at sea working on all kinds of vessels all around the world.
When John swallowed the anchor he and his wife converted an old sailing barge to make it their home. All four of his children were born and raised on the barge for part of their childhood. They have delightful memories of this time: lopsided birthday cakes when the barge settled awkwardly on a mud berth; the bath on top of a water tank capable of holding all four children and needing a ladder to get into it…
Chancellor had great artistic ability but he also brought an intimate knowledge of the sea and sailing ships to his paintings. As well as the fighting vessels of Nelson’s age he took great delight in bringing to life the trading and fishing vessels under sail of more recent times.
His paintings took hundreds of hours to produce, such was his devotion to research and maritime accuracy. He knew every aspect of the sea and weather conditions – the colour of the sky at any particular time of day and its reflection on the surface of the water; the size of a swell; the type of cloud cover etc.
I have a print of his magnificent Victory in Pursuit of Nelson hanging over the fireplace in my living room. It just seems so right there, and I must admit I have to stand with legs firmly apart when I look at it, so realistic is the feeling that I’m back at sea!
You can look at this painting as a splendid rendition of a proud ship at sea, or you can see it as Chancellor’s frozen moment in time – 25 May, 1803, 3pm. The wind is W by S, 4‑5; she’s steering S by W, making 6‑7 knots. There’s a swell from W by N due to the previous days being dominated by N to NW winds.
One of the compelling aspects about Chancellor’s paintings is the meticulous attention to detail. Come up very close to Victory in Pursuit of Nelson and you’ll even see a man using the heads! And the tracery of rigging has exactly the right sort of tension curve to be expected at that precise point of the roll.
Among the limited edition prints in the upcoming Retrospective will be A Perfect Hurricane, painted in 1974 – and one of my favourites.
The painting tells a story. The 20-gun La Prompte, on passage to Bermuda for stores, captured a French schooner, Courier du Cap and after taking all her people prisoner and putting a prize crew aboard, both vessels continued towards Bermuda.
Two days later, the wind began to freshen and by midnight was blowing a full gale. The following morning conditions had worsened and La Prompte sent down her fore and main topgallant yards and masts.
The prize ship hoisted a distress signal; she had sprung a leak. A severe gale was now from the ESE and with a heavy sea running there was little hope of taking the men off her.
The weather continued to deteriorate into the morning and later that day the prize ship went down with all hands. Despite the conditions, La Prompte remained in the area, but she was powerless to get to windward to search for any survivors.
At 5pm a hurricane struck. The storm mizzen staysail blew to pieces and although her rig was snugged down, with no topgallant masts or yards aloft and not a stick of canvas set, she was held down practically on her beam ends by the sheer weight of wind in her rigging. Her situation was desperate; she was making water and would soon capsize. The helm was put hard up and an attempt was made to set the storm fore-staysail to get her before the wind, but it blew to shreds. The fore-yards were then trimmed and the foresail loosed, but it burst into a thousand ribbons and the ship still lay beam on, hove down by the wind.
In a last-ditch and daring piece of seamanship her captain ordered the mizzenmast to be felled. This reduced the windage aft, and as the ship drifted to leeward of the wreckage, the remaining cordage still attached helped to tug her stern to windward like a sea anchor.
This is the moment of the painting.
Another print in the exhibition that I am drawn to is Day of the Men. The way Chancellor has captured the light gives the work an almost ethereal quality. It’s mid morning and a gentle north-westerly breeze is blowing. The Grand Bank barquentines are getting underway from St Malo for the fishing grounds off Canada. As they get underway many local small craft sail out to bid them farewell. Ahead of them is the long voyage across the Atlantic and many months of arduous and hazardous fishing for cod in the little dories stacked on deck.
Chancellor drew on his childhood memories for this painting. As a very young boy living on the north bank of the Tagus, he witnessed the spectacle of a huge fleet of schooners and square riggers setting sail to fish the Grand Banks.