Whaler and Stone Lighthouse - Robert Willoughby (1814)
oil on canvas, 80 x 111 cm
KINCM:2007.2265, Hull Maritime Museum

Willoughby’s evidently commercially successful formula here takes on an innovative new form. The two whale ships, in full sail, might be in familiar positions, with a central port view, parallel to the picture plane, and a lost stern view sailing towards the horizon on the right, but the central ship this time supports, in addition to its merchant navy ensign at the rear, a Blue Peter, signalling that the ship is about to sail out to sea. In the foreground, where Willoughby’s viewers are used to seeing repoussoir ice floes, he paints a blue and white chequered bouy, echoed by another black bouy to the left of the bow of the central ship.  The main difference between this and other variants on the theme is that this canvas depicts whale ships not in the Arctic, but on their way to it, as signalled by the presence of the stone lighthouse on the left horizon, and the presence of other vessels close by. Indeed, the image is almost unique in depicting whalers heading out to sea, rather than returning home. Perhaps it was commissioned for a whale ship setting sail for the first time, or perhaps Willoughby wanted to signal his abilities to depict ships in different geographical locations. Certainly, he most likely painted his ships whilst they were home in port, during the winter, if he was not also employing ship’s models. The picture may have been designed to be topical. The famous Bell Rock Lighthouse, the most famous lighthouse in the period, had only recently been completed, in 1810, and was en route to the Arctic from Hull, just across the water from another famous whaling port, Dundee.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum