Antiques

Ships Ahoy!

In the 19th century, stoic Victorians weren’t the only ones posing for portraits, appraiser John Bottero writes.

ship portrait of the American schooner Sky Lark, William Pierce Stubbs, circa 1880, oil on canvas, 23" x 35"

ABOVE Portrait of the American schooner Sky Lark, William Pierce Stubbs, circa 1880, oil on canvas, 23″ x 35″.

TEXT BY JOHN BOTTERO
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THOMASTON PLACE AUCTION GALLERIES

Within the broad category of paintings illustrating the era of 19th-century sailing ships, “ship portraits” are a special breed. Unlike the many works depicting naval battles, yacht races, and dramatic sailing views, ship portraits celebrate a particular vessel, which is shown broadside, usually with full sails and recognizable land masses, lighthouses, or other boats on the horizon. Commissioned by captains, ship or shipyard owners, and insurance companies who valued accuracy, the paintings’ subjects are clearly identifiable by their names, flags, or captions added to the base of canvases, and display correct rigging, sails, and masts.

Here in Maine, there are several ship portrait artists that collectors prize above all others. Belfast’s Percy Sanborn, also known for his animal paintings, and Bucksport ship captain William Pierce Stubbs were most prolific during the 1870s and ’80s, when photography emerged as an alternative to painting. Their compositions are balanced and consistent, with waves that course parallel or diagonal to the ship’s hull. Solon Francis Montecello Badger, a student of Stubbs’s in Boston, was active in the early 1900s and contributed works remarkably similar to his mentor’s.

The cost to put a fine portrait like one of theirs above your mantel? From $3,000 to $30,000 or more, depending on its complexity and condition.

ship portrait of Glory of the Seas, Percy Sanborn, circa 1880s, oil on canvas, 22" x 34"

ABOVE Portrait of Glory of the Seas, Percy Sanborn, circa 1880s, oil on canvas, 22″ x 34″. BELOW Portrait of the three-masted schooner Jose Olavern, Solon Francis Montecello Badger, 1896, oil on canvas, 21 3⁄4″ x 35 1⁄2″.

ship portrait of the three-masted schooner Jose Olavern, Solon Francis Montecello Badger, 1896, oil on canvas, 21 3⁄4" x 35 1⁄2"

John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.


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