Forward British 20th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects, South East England: Artists and Subjects 26 Who can tell us more about these passenger steamers and the location depicted?

Ship Scene
Topic: Artist

Is this the Solent with the Needles and Needles Lighthouse on the left? [Note: A copy of the poster after the painting indicates that these are Royal Mail Line or Elder Dempster Line passenger steamers and dating from the 1920s.]

Martin Hopkinson, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Charles Payton,

Bearing in mind the highly stylised nature of the poster, which leaves the lighthouse a tad cursory in depiction, may I say it is definitely not the Needles Light, which lies close into and upon its rocks that are of course white.

If pushed I might suggest that this is off the Eddystone. That might go well with Elder Dempster and Royal Mail departing and returning to these shores?

My colleague Bob Todd comments: 'This is a classic poster showing a stylised image of two ships. British liner companies that used the yellow or buff funnel with no top or markings were the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Ltd, Asiatic Steam Nav. Co. Ltd, Elder Dempster Lines Ltd, The New Zealand Shipping Co Ltd., Orient Steam Nav. Co. Ltd., Pacific Steam Navigation Co. and Royal Mail Lines Ltd. None of these companies’ ships had white upper works, buff masts and a black hull with a white upper line. You will note that neither of these vessels are showing any signs of cargo-handling gear by way of samson posts, goalposts or large derricks. I can find nothing that comes anywhere near these images and can only come to the conclusion that this poster was drawn as a basic indication of a liner from memory.'

Neither of us can suggest location but I agree with Charles, above: the distant rocks look a little 'Needles-like' but if you were looking at them from the viewpoint and distance shown you would be somewhere in mid-Hampshire, directly to the north. The tower is also not Douglass's Eddystone Light (1881).

Keith Orford,

The ship on the right, red funnel with black top, is likely to be a Cunarder. A single smokestack and two masts limit the range. Three such ships were built just before WW1 but they were all lost. One of their names was reused: RMS Alaunia was built in 1925 and matches the appearance of the right hand vessel.

1 attachment
Melita Moule,

I am no expert and I hope you don't mind but I sent your picture to my Merchant Navy brother-in-law and my engineer brother for their comments. You may be interested in the following, especially the last paragraph but I don't know whether it's very helpful!

(HCM, my brother-in-law, was a Merchant Seaman Officer with Blue Funnel line.
NAL, my brother, is an engineer with a keen interest in ships and a postcard collection of liners).

Edited extracts from recent family emails:

HCM: I've looked through various books and cannot find either of the ships. (nor the location). I think both ships were built in about 1920. Unusual in that the larger ship is a steamship with plain yellow funnel (i.e. no black top to it) just like all Royal Mail and N.Z. Shipping Co vessels. But neither of those Companies had a white line painted round their black hulls.

NAL: I think that Canadian Pacific sailed from Liverpool and so did some Cunarders, so perhaps the lighthouse in on the Wirral or North Wales coast?

NAL: I have been unable to find one with a single funnel but perhaps the angle is so fine there are two funnels. The “Melita” although similar in colour has a bridge which is an entirely separate superstructure.
HCM: I ruled out Canadian Pacific, as I thought the sea looked too tranquil for the Atlantic! And it's not "Melita" as the bridge superstructure does not match the ART UK painting. The only support for it being a C.P. ship is that the other ship has a red funnel and could be one of the old intermediate Cunarders on the Liverpool to Quebec run. Otherwise, I'm baffled. (Incidentally, "Melita" was not a "War-loss" so perhaps she traded under another name after 1945??).
NAL: I have come to the conclusion, having done more research, that it is not of any particular ship. The painting is by Norman Wilkinson who did a lot of railway posters as well as a special booklet on the Canadian Pacific and shipping posters. It is thought the picture might have been produced for a poster but never used.

2 attachments

Thanks for those comments which reinforce the idea that the ships are generic rather than specific. If we were not told it is oil on canvas my first instinct would have been to think it was a chromo-lith print (i.e a poster image), though perhaps intended for that. We might get a bit further on date and location -if a real one, though perhaps it is not with that modernist parallel-sided lighthouse. Open-sea light towers generally narrow from the based up for very good structural reasons. The two identifiable sailing vessels are a topsail schooner and apparently a ketch-rigged Thames barge at greater distance. The latter would imply English Channel at furthest west or up the East Coast - though the headland and rocks don't look like that - and the overall combination suggests its all imaginary. I'd have thought 1920s/30s for date

Jane Wickenden,

The profile of the rocks bears a basic resemblance to that of the Old Harry Rocks (Isle of Purbeck, Dorset) but there is no sea-based lighthouse there. Image from

1 attachment
Jimaa Alaa,

This is the S.S. EMPRESS OF BRITAIN 1916

This discussion is probably only worth continuing a short while to see if there is a chance of identifying the location (if real rather than imaginary) or the purpose of the image -e.g. whether it was one exhibited, or done on commssion for corporate use (e.g. by Elder Dempster). Lack of an artist's title doesn't help on the former and finding the latter is probably a matter of luck (supposing it were used as a poster/advert etc) unless -perhaps - it came from some boardroom clear-out, possibly with other art works or things like company papers.

One of the oddest aspects for what is such a large canvas is that NMW does not seem to know how they got it. They might also usefully confirm whether there are any marks or labels etc on the back.

Wilkinson wrote an informative (though sometimes unreliable) late-years memoir 'A Brush with Life' which I don't have ready access to at present: I doubt it would help, but it would also be worth a look.

Michael Charles,

I share the view that this is what I believe is known as a 'schema' painting, i.e. a representative impression of a typical scene but by no means a specific depiction of a particular subject. Consider the following:
. Had Wilkinson wished positively to identify the liner in the foreground, he had afforded himself ample scope to have inscribed her name in the customary position on her starboard bow.
. In the conditions and the circumstances portrayed - i.e. broad daylight, fine weather, clear visibility, in sight both of land and of each other and, by no means least, off a lighthouse whence their passages would have been reported to Lloyds - both ships would have been wearing, if not their four-flag identification hoists in the International Code of Signals, then certainly their respective owners' house-flags. Yet none of these is shown - and indeed Wilkinson has wilfully so positioned the funnel-smoke of the principal subject as to obscure her maintopmasthead and thus to obviate the requirement that any house-flag be included.
. Notwithstanding the intimation on the poster that these ships belong either to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. (as it was at that date) or to Elder Dempster, that on the right, having the red funnel with the black topping and the two narrow black bands, could belong to neither - the principal 'candidates' for the ownership of a ship with such a funnel being Cunard, Canadian Australian Royal Mail Lines, Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand and Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. - while none of such ships of either Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. or Elder Dempster as had black hulls ever wore, inter alia, the green boot-topping shown here on the vessel in the foreground.
. In chapter 3, entitled 'Early Posters', of the book to which Pieter refers, Wilkinson recounts how simple he found it to transform a portrait of a specific ship of one company into that of a reasonably similar vessel of another.
. And Wilkinson's own large oil painting of The Needles reproduced as plate 6 in that same book dispels any possibility that the rocks and the lighthouse included in this present work are intended to represent that location.

While, therefore, I believe the subject matter of this painting to be purely hypothetical, presumably the poster derived from it embodies some caption or inscription indicating the product, service or other object that it is aimed at promoting? Can the holders of the poster - the National Museum of Wales? - tell us what wording it does in fact incorporate?

Thanks Michael: very useful to have your specific merchant-ship expertise on this matter.

The one point you mistake, however, is the 'medium' in play here - at least assuming the information supplied is correct: though the image looks like a colour-block printed 'poster' it is stated to be a large oil painting - 43 x 63 inches (H x W) in round terms. Even if it was intended as an image from which a poster was to me made, I can't imagine a technical reason relating to printing that would require it to be so big: if anyone knows otherwise, it would be useful to hear.

We don't as yet know if it has any exhibition or other 'use' record.
If it is framed, then it presumably hung on a wall at some point: if it isn't then perhaps is was backing for some form of display. Obviously enough it would help if the collection could add any further information they have.

I have started to consult my copy of 'A Brush with Life' by Norman Wilkinson, published in 1969. Chapter 3 is titled 'Early Posters' in which the author writes (about another of his posters) 'The size of the poster was to be 60 inches by 40 inches, the standard size of paper for Railway posters at the time'. So the posters were indeed large! I'll carry on reading the autobiography in the hope that it may provide further information.

Michael Charles,

Grant has largely forestalled my response to you, Pieter. My comments above were made on the understanding that the work under discussion is indeed itself an oil painting measuring 940mm x 1440mm (37" x 55") and that from it was produced a poster of those same dimensions of which the National Museum of Wales (?) holds a copy bearing the 'indications' at issue regarding the ownership of the two passenger liners depicted. This understanding is borne out by Wilkinson's mention in 'A Brush with Life' that the standard size of railway posters in the early 1900s was 60" x 40" and that in 1905 he was approached by the prominent poster printers, McCorquodales, for a painting of those dimensions from which the London & North Western Railway Company proposed to produce a poster advertising their steamship services between Holyhead and Dublin. He wrote: "The poster was duly completed, the original being the full size of the bill."

No doubt either Martin Hopkinson or the National Museum of Wales can clarify for us what are the facts of the matter in this case.

I am sorry for the confusion, Michael, the fault being entirely mine in failing to notice (being more fixated on subject) that Martin's initial comment had already identified the related poster which, with the references in 'A Brush with Life' that you and Grant produce above makes everything clear: worth perhaps also noting its signed lower right, as is the poster, though cut off in the image in Martin's initial link. Is it a credible design for NW Railway Co with the allusion to Elder Dempster and (?) RM ships , or perhaps another of the Mc Corquodale series? The refs so far are not that explicit but I don't have the book to look myself.

Michael Charles,

No, Pieter, by no possible stretch of the imagination could either of the ships depicted here be thought to have belonged to the London & North Western Railway Co., nor is the poster here concerned that referred to by Wilkinson, which is in fact reproduced in his book as plate 1. Not only did all the L. & N.W.R. Co.'s passenger ships in the Holyhead-Dublin service have twin funnels, but those funnels, while predominantly buff, had black toppings and the vessels' hulls, while black, had red boot-topping and were without white ribands. I don't know what other posters McCorquodales produced, but an advertising card printed by that company, also in 1905, from another painting by Wilkinson, captioned simply 'Dublin & Holyhead' and showing one of the ships in that service passing the Kish Light vessel, is reproduced on page 74 of Christopher Deakes' book 'A Postcard History of the Passenger Liner' (publ. Chatham Publishing, London; 2005).

It would help to know how NMW got both the oil and the related poster (especially if they were acquired together). I suspect they are lucky to have the latter as a rare survival but also a puzzling one in that it is advertising nothing. One possibility is that it is a printer's 'proof before letter'. There are 151 posters (railway and shipping) in the Norman Wilkiknson archive in the Science Museum but only a dozen or so have online images and a quick skim of titles of the others (which include for the Heysham-Stranraer as well as Holyhead-Dublin route) doesn't suggest there is one that would clearly fit.

I recommend we now close this discussion. As regards potential location shown - which was the original question - it has come to the conclusion that it is probably a combination of 'stock' elements. The distant coastal profile has not been pinned down, nor can the identity of the fairly generic lighthouse in relation to it be established (neither the Eddystone nor the Wolf Rock fit). The implication is 'southern British' from the presence in the background of what look like the sails of ketch-rigged Thames barges, with a topsail schooner in front. Expert comments on the two steamers from Bob Todd, Michael Charles, and as supplied at second-hand via Melita Moule, suggest that despite superficial similarities in aspects of their livery to those of the Elder Dempster and Royal Mail Lines, these (and other points of technical evidence) are deceptive. They are, however, clearly intended as 'passenger' liners.

Michael pointed out a comment in Wilkinson's autobiography about the ease he found in being able to turn the ship of one company into another to create generic motifs: Grant, more specifically, that while the purpose and maker of the large poster derived from this painting remain unclear, their 'same-size' relationship suggests they may be part of work Wilkinson did at actual size for the printing firm of McCorquodales from 1905 - though in this case in the 1920s or early '30s. If not for them, it was at least in the same full-scale way.

The collection record says it does not know how the oil was acquired and, equally uninformative, that the poster was 'collected officially'. No other copy of the poster has yet been identified and, unless the collection can find better provenance information, only another copy of it with overprinted text is likely to help explain origin and purpose of the image further.

I would recommend reconsideration of the painting's currently inadequate 'Ship scene' title: 'Two passenger steamships passing a lighthouse, with a distant coastal headland beyond' -or something on those lines - would provide more useful search terms.

As regards the poster desscription ('Poster/print showing Royal Mail Line or Elder Dempster Line passenger steamers') that should perhaps also be changed: 'Poster/print showing two passenger steamships, with livery similar to that of the Elder Dempster and Royal Mail lines, passing an offshore lighthouse.' Explicitly cross-referencing the two items in the collection record would also be a good idea: it's always infuriating to miss such correspondences because of assumptions about computers automatically and obviously pointing them out. They often don't.

Many thanks to those who have contributed, some with very technical information. If another (overprinted) copy of the poster appears to clarify further, I hope someone will reopen the case.

Many thanks all for your insightful comments. I agree that this discussion seems to have come to a natural end, concluding that the scene is an imagined one. I will add a summary of these discussions to the object's accession file.

Pieter, I am consulting with the Collection on your suggested changes to title and the wording within the artwork description field entries. David

Louis Musgrove,

Just wondering if the "lighthouse" could be the Southsea Naval Memorial-and 1920/30s IOW ferrys. It reminds me a bit of the many crossings I did as a young person to the IOW from Portsmouth.

Not impossible, considered as a 'detached component' in a composed scene apparently assembled from them, as we've already concluded, but certainly a topographical impossibility in real terms.

Louis Musgrove,

Pieter-topographically impossible-perhaps ??-but as I mentioned it did remind me of what one used to see on the ferry Journey,as the ferry used to turn sharp right out of Portsmouth and chug along for some time before going across and then turning left ,towards and into Ryde.So the Memorial was always in front or behind near Portsmouth.
And the little ships are very similar to the Ferrys in Wilkinson's Queen Mary in the Clyde-Vindex discussion-except they have two funnels as opposed to our one. So typical I would say of Railway Company ferrys of the 1930's.Also-Norman's Holyhead Dublin 1905 ferry poster has a bigger ship with two funnels. Cheers.L.

That's perfectly legitimate comment, but Bob Todd's at the start (23/04/2021 15:47) hit the point that has become clearer all the way down to it. The picture is a composed view: it is convincing overall on a decorative level despite being a kit-of-parts that exists nowhere together in reality, and also not pedantically accurate on technical aspects of the shipping.

As such, if it evokes 'things recollected' in any viewer it can probably be said to have succeeded in its purpose, which was probably a 'promotional' one even though we haven't discovered what the intended application was.

If that appears, I hope someone will reopen the matter. At present I think we have got as far as we can and, with renewed thanks all round, suggest we wrap this discussion-stream up.

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

jpg, png, pdf, doc, xls (max 6MB)
Drop your files here
Attach a file Start uploading

Sign in

By signing in you agree to the Terms & Conditions, which includes our use of cookies.