The Thornton - Robert Willoughby (c.1788)
oil on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm
KINCM:2007.1378, Hull Maritime Museum

The Thornton was built in Hull in 1788, and registered for the whale fishery in 1809, before becoming lost in the Arctic in 1821. Thornton’s picture was probably a commission by the ship’s owner, William Lee, or captain, around the time it was built. The canvas depicts the ship in three views: a port profile, in full sail, at centre; a foreshortened, lost stern view sailing towards the horizon on the right; and in starboard port view on the left horizon. Willoughby provides a characteristically low horizon line, so viewers can focus on the ship portraits undistracted by landscape features. The picture is divided into quarters, with the main ship taking up approximately half of the horizon, and the smaller views roughly a quarter each. The left three quarters of the picture are relatively self-contained: the ship sails into the canvas, following the left-right orientation of Anglophone readers, and then circles back in the opposite direction. The right quarter has more dynamism, with the ship sailing diagonally out of the picture, following the direction of the reader’s attention. If that ship is sailing towards the Arctic from Hull, it is heading northeast up the coast, and the viewer is looking north. The ship is also sailing in the direction of the Dutch Republic, with whom Britain and Prussia signed a Triple Alliance in 1788.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum