Captain William Blyth (1782-1870) - Unknown Artist (1822)
oil on canvas, 74 x 61 cm
KINCM:1946.38.5, Hull Maritime Museum

In this anonymous portrait of Blyth, from the middle of his career, the ruddy-faced sitter, seen informally without a wig, looks commandingly out of the frame, over the viewer’s left shoulder, into the space of the middle or far distance. Emphasizing the importance of this distant look, Blyth holds a telescope in his left hand, a visual technology vital to spotting whales and ice-bergs from the crow’s nest of a whaler. Blyth was a highly successful whaler, who commanded the Brunswick from her maiden voyage in 1814 until 1834, the ship’s last Arctic season, catching an average of 14 whales each year. The two patches of white in the top right corner, the smudge of white light at the top of the telescope lens, and the glow of cream light behind Blyth, in conjunction with the cold ruddiness of his cheeks and nose, all perhaps suggest the moonlit or starlit depths of an Arctic winter Blyth knew well. Alternatively, the glow may represent the Aurora Borealis, a phenomena frequently described by whalers and other voyagers in the Arctic in the period, but very rarely attempted by local painters, who were, perhaps, wary of the technical challenge, or less confident that they could approximate its appearance from verbal descriptions alone.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum