As an island, Britain’s wealth has depended on maritime activities for hundreds of years. It is not surprising then that the sea should be particularly prominent in British art. The fishing and shipbuilding industries, the busy activities of ports and harbours, the role of merchant ships and the exploits of the navy have all been important themes for artists and their customers. The importance of the weather as a subject should not be forgotten.
Like much of British art, the origins of marine painting lie in the work of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists. Willem van de Velde I and II set the pattern for grander eighteenth century marine paintings and Dutch seventeenth-century painting was an strong influence on more modest depictions of seascapes and fishing. These were a mainstay of British art production for 200 years. An important specialist field is the ‘ship portrait’, a detailed depiction of an individual vessel cheaply painted by a ‘pier-head’ artist for the ship’s owner or master.