Completed Maritime Subjects 24 Is this by William Bloomfield Douglas (1822–1906)?

The Gunboat HMS 'Goldfinch'
Topic: Artist

Wikipedia has William Bloomfield Douglas in the right place (Canada) and dates for this work. He was an amateur painter. In addition, when he arrived in Canada he lied about his date of birth (took 10 years off) to get a job, so everything fits.

Jim Boyd, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The artist has been confirmed as William Bloomfield Douglas (1822–1906). Further details of his naval and artistic career are now known, beyond those provided in the 'Australian Dictionary of Biography'. A description of the painting and the acquisition method have been added to Art UK.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Many thanks to Pieter van der Merwe for his comments:

'It has been pointed out that the artist of this painting, hitherto called 'Bloomfield Douglas', is in fact William Bloomfield Douglas, 1822–1906, a Royal Naval officer who had a varied and often controversial colonial service career in Australia and the East Indies, and later in Canada. He has a thorough entry in the 'Australian Dictionary of National Biography' and a summary one in Wikipedia. Neither add anything on his artistic activities as an apparently amateur painter, however, though he is recorded as an artist working in Canada and the only other painting by him so far found is the Canadian subject dated 1894 [link in the post above] Can anyone add more information or examples?'

Osmund Bullock,

The NMM describes the ship with "pale cliffs to her left and fortifications ... above the waves to her right", but this is clearly wrong.

In 1903 HMS Goldfinch under Commander FC Learmonth, RN, was engaged in hydrographic surveying for the Admiralty (Staff Commander William Tooker) off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. See (page 31)

This must be a scene set there, and what what we see are icebergs to the right, and perhaps a wintry headland (or a larger berg) to the left.

Thanks Osmund; my initial comment to Art UK, of which only part is quoted above, said the same thing. It's one of the many images in NMM's 'deep, dark inside cupboards' that I have never seen - even as a photo. There is not one on the Museum database, albeit Art UK supplied all it took of paintings of which the Museum then had no electronic images for inserting there after they were taken (they were supplied on DVD, so it wasn't recent). For whatever reason, this has not yet happened and has now long prompted the slightly bizarre situation (at least for a national museum) that, on not finding an image of our own paintings on our own database, immediate next resort is to look them up on Art UK! It works but precludes the possibilities of serendipity (i.e. accidentally finding an ill-described image during other in-house searches and doing something to remedy the situation, however minor).

My quick look around when Art UK first asked about this painting did not pick up the Labrador/Newfoundland and Learmouth connection but many thanks for providing it, since I am sure you have hit the spot. It's the only 'Goldfinch' commission which could have provided an icy background. Perhaps the 'why' and 'who for' will emerge in following comments.

Osmund Bullock,

Easy to misread that vowel (as I did myself), but in fact it's Learmonth rather than Learmouth - later Admiral Sir Frederick Charles Learmonth, KBE, CB (1866-1941), Superintendent of Charts at the Admiralty 1908-11, and Hydrographer of the Navy 1919-24.

OK. Noted, so a distinguished hydrographer in a long Georgian and Victorian line of them. Staff Commander (Tooker) is an interesting rank: its what Masters RN (i.e. the senior non-commissioned navigating and seamanship rank of the sailing Navy) became when that of Master was abolished in the major Naval reforms of 1863. The fact that the 'Goldfinch' survey was among the last the RN did in Canadian waters also adds to the historical interest of the image.

Osmund Bullock,

There is a brief mention of the “very fair marine work” of Capt. [sic] Bloomfield Douglas, RNR” (he seldom, if ever used his first name ‘William’ in later years) in a footnote to a paper on ‘Artists of Nova Scotia’ read to the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1914: In fact (according to Navy Lists) Bloomfield was only an Honorary Lieutenant in the RNR (date of commission 12 Dec 66), though even that is more than the Australian Dic of Biography accords him. However, he freely used the rank of Captain, which he may have been in the Merchant Marine but *not* in the RN/RNR as claimed (or at least implied).

Another work of his, a watercolour of a naval incident early (1835) in the career of Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, is reproduced in a memoir of the Admiral: . Keppel actually met Douglas with Rajah Brooke in Sarawak in May 1843 (, though how that connects (if it does at all) with why he painted the picture, presumably much later, is not clear.

The comment in Harry Piers's paper on 'Artists of Nova Scotia' (1914) p.155, that Douglas was on the 'Board of Examination for [merchant] Masters and Mates' at Halifax, NS, refers to the job that AuDNB mentions in the 'Department of Marine and Fisheries' for which he falsified his date of birth as 1832 in 1897: but he was clearly a competent and (mainly) merchant seaman, as that would require, albeit only an RNR lieutenant and - as one who had commanded merchant vessels - entitled to use 'Captain' as a customary 'honorific'. Merchant 'masters' invariably did (and as still do), 'captain' being a substantive commissioned 'rank' only in the Navy. Informal references to Captain Cook as commander of the 'Endeavour' (1768-71) and Captain Bligh, ditto, of the 'Bounty' (1787-90) would similarly have been normal at the time - though both were only in fact lieutenants in rank when in those commissions.

The AuDNB overview of Douglas (link below) suggests he was - and needed to be- a self-promoter and, despite his talents, not always attractive, but his use of 'Captain' was not at all fraudulent, just normal practice. That he latterly lost 'William' looks like because he wanted to: the signature on the NMM picture in question is 'B D / 1903' lower right.

The query raised about this artist's full name has been answered, confirming it is William Bloomfield Douglas and correcting his date of birth to 1822. This is the only painting by him noted in UK public hands but, from the illustrated example as Osmund has pointed out, he also did watercolours and both apparently as an amateur, even if some were commissioned on a purchase basis or otherwise sold.

We can leave the matter open a while just in case anyone can produce further information on his artistic activities, including other examples, but if there's nothing significant to follow further by the end of January will recommend we wrap it up then.

The following is a draft new description for this painting to go (more or less) into the NMM database after further checks:

'HMS ‘Goldfinch’ was a Redbreast-class Royal Naval gunboat (one of nine) of 805 tons and 165 feet long, built at Sheerness Dockyard and launched on 18 May 1889. After early service on the Australian station it was converted at Sheerness into a survey vessel and recommissioned under Commander (later Admiral Sir) Frederick Charles Learmonth in February 1902. From brief work in the Mediterranean until October, it then went to the West African coast but in 1903 was helping complete surveying the Newfoundland coast and waters east of the Strait of Belle-Ile. In this Learmonth was supporting and joined by Staff Commander William Tooker, who had been engaged on the re-survey of Labrador and the west coast of Newfoundland since 1891 (in the ‘Rambler’, under Commander H.E. Purey-Cust). How long this continued is unclear but Learmonth left ‘Goldfinch’ in mid-1905 and in 1906, when it returned to Sheerness for refit, its poor condition led to it being decommissioned and sold for breaking-up in May 1907.

This painting, with what must be an iceberg in the right distance and either another or an icy shore at far left, clearly commemorates the Newfoundland survey. The artist, William Bloomfield Douglas (1822–1906) had spent most of his fairly controversial career in merchant marine and colonial service in Australia and the East Indies. He was also an honorary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve from 1866, but in his general later style of ‘Captain Bloomfield Douglas’ the rank was that of a master mariner who had commanded merchant vessels. In 1893 he moved to Canada, working - latterly at Halifax, N.S. - for the Department of Marine and Fisheries, first in its tidal department and then as an examiner for masters and mates certificates. Although little is known of the extent of his artistic output and nothing of an exhibiting record, he was an amateur painter in both watercolours and oil: an example of the former showing HM brig 'Childers' in a Mediterranean squall in 1835, when under command of (Admiral Sir) Henry Keppel – whom Douglas later met in the East – is reproduced in the latter’s memoirs.

Signed ‘B D/ 1903’, this is the only oil by Douglas in a UK public collection: whether he perhaps painted it for Tooker or Learmonth is not yet clear. Douglas was widowed (eight children) in 1887 but remarried in Canada in 1899 and died there in March 1906. An otherwise good entry on him in the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ makes no mention of his art work. Learmonth (1866–1941), a notable surveyor, was Hydrographer of the Navy, 1919–24.'

Osmund Bullock,

The link to that painting's in the intro, Kieran, along with one to his informative Wiki page (which includes his place and exact date of death, inter alia).

S. Elin Jones,

When places become a little more accessible it might be worth locating the painting in the Maritime museum and having a look at the back of the canvas. It appears that William Bloomfield Douglas recorded a surprising amount of information on the back of his paintings.

The painting on the website of Fine Art America (Belle Isle Strait, 1894) was donated to the Dallas Museum of Art by Cecil A. Keating in 1931, alongside one other painting called ‘A Close Shave’, also by Bloomfield Douglas.

On the back of the ‘Belle Isle Strait’ is the following information:
No. 7 - 1896
Belle Isle Strait - Aug 1894
Bloomfield Douglas
15 feby 1896

On the back of ‘A Close Shave’ is the following information:
“A Close Shave”
No. 15. - 1896
Bloomfield Douglas
70 hours

There was also another painting sold at auction in Ottowa, Ontario on 1.6.2011 called “H.M.R.C. Engle”, 1901. It also mentions on that listing that the title is listed on the back of the painting.

The dates on the back of the ‘Belle Isle Strait’ may imply that he developed some paintings from sketches completed up to a year and a half earlier. It would also be very interesting to see if there is a number on the painting of the ‘Gunboat H.M.S ‘Goldfinch’’ as it may give a little more context to the sheduling of his paintings, (whether it were for a short or long-term purpose). He also took 70 hours to complete ‘A Close Shave’.

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Thanks for those interesting contributions, not least pointing out where the Belle-Isle Strait picture is: so many web commercial sites fail to make that clear. It's understandable when pictures are still moving round on the market but just annoying when long in museums, as well as odd given that they usually want it acknowledged. I'll check the database to see if anything is noted on the back of 'Goldfinch' in the next few days, but it won't be possible to get at it any time soon.

Osmund Bullock,

Thanks for clarifying Douglas's right to be called 'Captain', Pieter – my ignorance of naval nomenclature is large, but slowly shrinking. And well done, E Jones, for digging out two more paintings. Direct link to the two at Dallas is (though I can’t get the images there to enlarge on either of my devices); and the link to ‘HMRC Engle [sic]’ is here: (it’s no longer on the auctioneer’s own website). Also on 'Invaluable' is another painting of his, ‘On the River Humber, Newfoundland’, which went through an auction house in Cape Cod in 1991: There’s no illustration, and no date is given, but again it’s said to be signed and titled on the reverse.

I think the Revenue Cutter depicted is likely to have been the ‘Eagle’, not the Engle – the auctioneers likely misread it. There was indeed an H.M. Revenue Cutter ‘Eagle’ operating in the (English) Channel near Guernsey in 1857 (see It would be nice to think this was the US Revenue Cutter ‘Eagle’ captured by the Royal Navy in a famous, but rather over-glamourised (by the Americans) minor incident towards the end of the War of 1812; but it seems very unlikely in view of the time elapsed and the state of the vessel when taken, holed by gunfire, and stripped and abandoned by her crew. See EDIT: the same HM Revenue cutter (or another of the same name) was apparently chasing smugglers off the Kentish coast in 1819 – – so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched that it was the reflagged US vessel. Pieter?

I have one tiny correction to Pieter's excellent description, plus a few minor, but interesting additions to the biographical material on Douglas. I'll post them later today.

Thanks Osmund: the 'Captain' thing can mislead as a title as does its now universal civilian parallel of 'Doctor' - at least in the UK. It's a minority of medical people who are, strictly speaking, 'doctors' - i.e. only those who have 'doctorates' (Ph.D or an honorary higher doctoral degree): most are Bachelors of Medicine who are Members of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Licentiates of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons (England or Scotland), at least as regards the basic level of qualifications to practice.

That was an early lesson from my father (a pathologist) when I mistakenly thought he had a 'doctorate' in medicine' rather than the above. In the general day-to-day usage as a medical title its just a tradition deriving from the relatively modern meaning of 'doctor' as 'physician' rather than its older one of 'scholar/ teacher' -and surgeons rather pointedly remain 'Mr'. The American qualification 'M.D.' presumably rather alters the case there.

You are probably right re: 'Eagle' which looks as if it is flying a white ensign. If not, I am not sure what it is, though after 1863 auxiliary services generally used blue 'defaced' with specific symbols of which the Revenue's is the Tudor portcullis - though I'd need to check exactly when that came in.

If you can supply other tweaks I'll recommend this closes this week.

Osmund Bullock,

Right, here goes...I’m afraid it’s grown like topsy (don’t worry, Pieter, I’m not expecting most, if any of what follows to make it into your description for the NMM!). The tiny error is that the watercolour reproduction is not actually in Keppel’s own memoirs, but in a memoir *of* him by Sir Algernon West.

Keppel’s memoirs do record his meeting with Douglas in Sarawak, and Douglas's participation in his expedition with Brooke against the Borneo pirates in June 1843. According to Keppel, Douglas was their interpreter; and in another book (‘The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido...’ he relates how, when he was choosing the crew for a boat being sent out on an earlier sortie, “Mr Douglas, speaking the Malayan language ... volunteered his services”. This puts a small question-mark over the AusDB’s assertion that when Douglas returned to Singapore from Australia in 1875 he spoke little Malay.

Osmund Bullock,

Douglas’s claim for a Master’s Certificate of Service in March 1852 (attached) is highly informative of his earlier career, and expands on (and occasionally corrects) the details in his ADB biography. It essentially covers the three ships he commanded in, and on the way back to England from, the East Indies between Aug 1843 & Nov 1845; but also supports his claim to have served in the Indian as well as the Royal Navy. It goes on to relate his employment from 1847 as a Chief Officer in the Coastguard Service – we already knew he was that at Alnmouth, Northumberland in April 1848 when he married, but we can now add that by early 1852 he was based at the Southampton Water Coastguard Station – and in fact I’ve found separate evidence (Census & Directory) that in 1851 he was stationed at Fraserburgh in Scotland. Perhaps the best discovery for us in the claim is that at some point c.1847-50 he was “... in temporary command of H.M.R.C. “Eagle” on the coast of Northumberland ...”. So that painting is indeed the ‘Eagle, and we know why he painted it.

There are also some details of his early life and family worth mentioning. He was christened twice, oddly, both times in the Anglican Church – first at Aberystwyth on 6/10/1822 (his middle name spelt ‘Blomfield’), and then again at West Stafford, Dorset on 27/9/1823 (as Bloomfield). Perhaps this was to satisfy an important godparent who couldn’t make it to Wales, and that’s indeed possible: his middle name was in honour of his godfather Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, GCB, created 1st Baron Bloomfield a couple of years later. Lord Bloomfield was married to Harriott Douglas, first cousin to Bloomfield Douglas’s father, Richard William Glode (not Clode) Douglas (1798-1862).

Osmund Bullock,

A man of good family and connections, Richard was in perpetual financial trouble for much of his adult life, repeatedly imprisoned for debt and bankrupted from the mid-1820s onwards, but continuously on the move to escape creditors long before that – I have literally never seem so many addresses for one man (See attached example notices – 4 of 13 – from the London Gazette). This culminated in an 1851 conviction for conspiracy to defraud along with two of his sons by his second marriage: Read the end, it’s a sad story brought on by acute poverty and desperation – the fraud was not some clever financial scheme, but fairly mundane obtaining luxury goods without paying for them, and pawning them for cash. He was sentenced to a year in prison, I think with hard labour; not long after his release he emigrated to Australia with his second wife & some of their many children, and died there – between his two wives he had at least sixteen children. All this to me throws light on the wanderings of Bloomfield Douglas, and the 'bloody, bold and resolute' - if often less than competent, honest and admirable - but nevertheless quite extraordinary life he chose for himself.

A final oddity: as well as christening his son twice, Richard also married his first wife Mary Johnson twice, once at Marylebone in May 1815, and again in Somerset in Mar 1817!

Many thanks Osmund: I'll correct the new description accordingly as regards where the 'Keppel' drawing appears and note the other nautical details on him. Incidentally, his signature on the Master's ticket application (made when he was 29) also shows that just signing himself 'Bloomfield Douglas' and not using 'William' formally was probably a very early habit, rather than just a later one. I would guess he was familiarly called William or probably 'Bill' and the latter, if only by coincidence, fits his 'BD' painting monogram.

The original matters raised here were the need to correct the artist's full name and dates as William Bloomfield Douglas (1822-1906). They are now confirmed, with clarification and correction of other details of his nautical career beyond those provided by the only apparent summary 'life' of Douglas in the 'Australian Dictionary of Biography'. Other pictures by him as a competent amateur marine painter, mainly in oils (a talent and practice not mentioned by 'AuDB'), have also been produced. They are as yet only examples, rather than a comprehensive body of work over whatever full period, but his apparent habit of signing 'BD' with a date and other useful information on subjects written on the back of canvases may help fill that out in due course. With thanks to all who have contributed these various additions, I think we can now close this discussion.

A new entry on this painting, based on the discussion here, is now online via the collection website link - though the only available image is Art UK's, as above. The only other immediate information in the NMM database is that it was presented in 1941.