Antique Maritime Treasures from Devon
PUBLISHED: 12:17 02 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Brian Goodison-Blanks of Bearnes, Hampton and Littlewood explores Devon's long association with the sea through a diverse range of historical artefacts.
On many occasions, when making my way to an appointment and turning a corner in the road, I am pleasantly surprised by an outstanding view of the waterways or coasts of Devon. It could be the sun reflecting off the water in Torbay, or a wind-chilled morning driving along the coastal roads of North Devon; in either location the views never fail to impress.
From that point I often start to wonder how these scenes might have looked in the past, with tall ships, schooners and trawlers passing about their daily business, much like those recorded by Edward Henry Hurdle (1821-57) while living and working at Exedene, Topsham.
One of the joys of selling Hurdle's painting of shipping just below Topsham was seeing the delight on people's faces during the viewing as they slowly gained their bearings and recognised a familiar location. Since re-introducing a Specialist Maritime sale to the South West in 2005 after a 15-year absence, every piece has become an opportunity to indulge in some detective work. Even with the strong maritime heritage of the South West, it is always pleasing to find a connection with the region. This is the case with the portrait of the Idas of Plymouth off Naples in 1855; further research revealed that she was laid down in 1850 and lost between Cardiff and Guernsey in 1865. During the 19th century hundreds of vessels similar to the Idas left ports like Plymouth with export cargoes for the Continent and were recorded by Italian artists off the Sorrento coast, sometimes with a smoking Mount Vesuvius in the background. These portraits are increasingly sought after at auction, particularly by Italian collectors, and are once again being exported back to the Continent.
Since the first cargoes of bacon and wine left Plymouth in 1211, the city has played a significant role in the development of the region. This is particularly the case in advances in maritime technology, and an example is still visible today on Plymouth Hoe in the form of a section of Smeaton's tower. The third lighthouse to be built on the infamous Eddystone Rocks, its design and construction by John Smeaton and his use of hydraulic lime and granite blocks formed the basis for all subsequent lighthouse designs. Smeaton's Tower remained in use from 1759 to 1877 when it was found that the rocks beneath the tower were unstable and the top section moved to its present location (Victorian engineers found the base sections too strong to dismantle and left them where they remain to this day). Smeaton published his own account of the design and construction of the lighthouse in 1791 and first editions of this account are sought after by book collectors, historians and lighthouse enthusiasts worldwide.
I am always impressed by the sheer amount of knowledge required from all ratings aboard ship. One only has to look at the exquisite workmanship of a fine early-19th-century ivory and boxwood ship model, with detailed gun ports, decks and complexity of rigging lines, to appreciate the task of sailing such ships. Not only are the Admiralty and dockyard prototype models of ships finely detailed, but also those made of bone and ivory by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars are minutely exact, from the cathead to the galleried transom. A cased model of HMS Mars consigned to the saleroom was not only superbly detailed but further enhanced with a waterline base and panoramic quayside scene on the back of the case. Portraying a ship which was commanded by Captain Hood in the Spithead Mutiny of 1797 and which sailed in the column led by Admiral Collingwood at Trafalgar, this model epitomised the most significant period of British naval history and impressed everyone with its detail; the hammer price was £68,500.
The significance of the sea in British culture has always been reflected through the fashions and styles of the period in ceramics, glassware, silver and furniture,
and even to the extent that timbers and fittings salvaged from decommissioned ships and wrecks in the region have been reused for commonplace items. Pieces constructed from ships' timbers that we have handled include snuff boxes and chairs, in particular from one HMS Britannia after she was decommissioned from Dartmouth Naval College.
When arriving at an appointment to be greeted by a pair of magnificent bronze cannon either side of the entrance, I wanted to find out more. The cannon in question became known as the Coote cannon from the family's direct descendance from Sir Eyre Coote GCB who saw action in the American War of Independence and was Governor General of Jamaica from 1806. The five-stage 37-inch bronze barrels made by J Wolff of Southampton were in exceptional condition and had good patination despite having been outside for a number of years. This resulted in a hammer price of 20,000.
Equally as interesting as the history behind an item, and often as surprising, is the manner in which pieces are uncovered for auction. A sailor's valentine had been brought in by a client on behalf of her window cleaner who had kept it on top of his wardrobe for years believing it to be of little value. Beautifully decorated with an array of shells in the pattern of a basket of flowers and being a larger size than the majority of valentines it proved immensely popular. His wife had to telephone twice in order for me to convince her that it had sold for 7,000.
Setting out in the morning for the day ahead is always a voyage of discovery, whether it results in finding an early-18th-century boxwood and lignum backstaff by R Glynne, signed and dated 1728, or driving down narrow lanes to East Prawle and seeing the waves crash dramatically on the rocks below. I haven't yet taken to beachcombing but prefer to get stuck into reference and history books looking for clues and information. At present, for instance, I am trying to identify a rather splendid early-19th-century cased ivory model of a frigate and find the date of a Siebe Gorman diver's helmet ready for the sale on 1 April.+