Whaling Barques Elizabeth and Leviathan III - Robert Willoughby (formerly ascribed to Thomas Fletcher) (1811)
oil on board, 70 x 100 cm

The Elizabeth was active in the Davis Strait from 1812 to 1828. Whilst there is no evidence of a whaler called the Levianthan III, there were two ships called Leviathan, the first active from c.1754-1769, and the Leviathan II built in 1803, and active in the Hull fishery from 1817-1821. Willoughby would again depict the Elizabeth in a c.1812-28 canvas, but the port profile view of the ship is almost identical to the right ship in first Whalers in the Arctic, this time accessorised by a Union Jack, and with two, rather than one sail unfurled on the central mast. Willoughby constructs the picture like a classic eighteenth-century landscape, with a repoussoir ice flow on the right, where the crew haul a whale boat hauling onto the ice. A serpentine, river-like line of beauty enters the picture from the bottom left, winding in to the right, past an island-like ice-floe, leading the viewer’s eye to the main action, three whale boats hauling a dead whale back towards the ship. The water line then continues up towards the right, curving to the left behind the boat towards the horizon line and vanishing point. The ever-changing ice-profile of the Arctic coast presented nineteenth-century painters with an interesting formal challenge, regarding whether depictions of Arctic bays were better imagined as seascapes, landscapes, or something in between, since the ice was constantly melting into the sea, and water from the sea freezing back into ice. Willoughby’s image suggests an interestingly hybrid genre: part sea-scape, part ship’s portrait, part landscape, and, in the foreground, part genre scene. As with marine painting, genre scenes had first developed cross across the North Sea from Hull in Holland, but increasingly became identified with British art, following the success, in 1806, of David Wilkie’s genre scenes at the Royal Academy.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum