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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Marine Art--Steamers

Traditional Marine Art, from the Island Princess Collection.
When we think of Marine Art, we generally think of paintings of sailing ships such as the one above, though in fact, the term is so broad as to include virtually any type of art having do with the sea. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I completed our twelfth cruise with a little fifteen-day jaunt from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Los Angeles, California, via the Panama Canal aboard Princess Cruise Line's Island Princess. As is the case with virtually all cruise liners today, the Island Princess was adorned with an international collection of contemporary art, spanning a broad range of styles and content. What made the art collection of the Island Princess rather unique was its concentration of Marine Art. However, unlike that of some ships we've enjoyed, the Marine Art collection of this ship was consisted of paintings featuring the maritime transition from sail to steam. In some ways this awkward, and painful "growing up" might be analogous to that of a child going through puberty. It wasn't always pretty, but historically, as with puberty, it was vitally important.

From small, river "packets" to ocean going vessels
in little more than a decade.
The first tentative steps in this transition came as early as 1813 when a small, steam packet traveled downriver from the English town of Leeds to Yarmouth. Though the trip was mostly via inland waterways, there was a short period under steam along the Eastern British coastline between the mouths of two rivers. From there it was but a short trek to cross the English Channel, and before long, to cross the Atlantic in 1822 with the American built S.S. Savannah. Incidentally, the N.S. Savannah went into service some 140 years later, in 1962, as the world's first nuclear powered cargo chip, though it saw service for only about ten years.

An early transat side-wheeler from the awkward period when steam
looked promising but still had many operational problems.
Tracing history through the work of artists, no matter how exhaustively detailed, is always a delicate undertaking. Artists don't often "lie," but they and their wealthy clients are not without a tendency to "embellish." They also have been known to dramatize and exaggerate. Be that as it may, and being no expert on sailing ships, I do know something about Marine Art, so this discourse is not so much about ships but what their painted depictions say about oceanic travel and the gradual changes in marine architecture coming as a result of the advent of steam.

SS California, the first ship of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company,
was used between Panama and San Francisco from 1848 until 1894,
when she was wrecked off the coast of Peru.
Although most of the paintings in the Island Princess collection are neither signed nor dated, for our purposes, the name of the artist matters little and the date of the painting even less in that many such works were done well after the ships they depict were long out of service. However, by comparing masts, stacks, propulsion systems, and the emerging superstructure of early steam vessels, it is not hard to place the approximate years during which the ship was built and served. The long, lean, simple lines of the early steamer below tell us she had a screw propeller, that her engines were reliable enough to eschew sail for coal-fired boilers, and that she was likely built around 1840, when the SS Archimedes became the first screw-propelled steamship.

A steel-hulled, screw-propelled steamer dating from the 1840s.
We often tend to date iron-hulled ships from the historic 1862 battle between the U.S. Navy's Monitor and the C.S.A. Navy's Merrimack. However, this naval landmark is wrong on two counts. In the first place, both were structurally made of wood with iron plating, and in fact, ships build totally of iron had been sailing the seven seas for as much as two decades before either ironclad warship hit the drawing boards. As can be seen easily in the painting above and the one below, the advent of the iron (and later steel) hull did as much or more to alter the shape of things as regarding naval architecture as did the conversion from sail to steam or the advent of the screw propeller.

The iron hull not only did away with rotting, worm-eaten wood, but
allowed for the lengthening of ocean-going vessels from no more
than 300 feet to lengths approaching one-thousand.
Hulls of iron and steel added structural stability, both from an engineering standpoint, and in the manner in which such ships were "sailed." However, added length meant added height, bringing forth changes in the hull proportions. This also allowed the addition of several decks of superstructure due to the tremendous changes in the center of gravity as naval architects moved it closer and closer to the waterline (and eventually) below it. Coal, boilers, and engines, not to mention cargo, are all quite heavy, demanding "deeper" hulls, greater drafts, and structural innovations such as double hulls and watertight compartments, all of which arrived in the latter years of the 19th-century.

This painting from the Island Princess collection is indicative of the
type of ships sailing around the turn of the century.
A forerunner of England's
first generation of  "Queens."
As ships grew in size and speed, they also took on a greater and greater degree of luxury. Whereas during the early years, before the advent of steam, crossing the ocean was an ordeal, at best, and often quite dangerous. Steam power meant a more consistent and, eventually, more stable movement through the waves, as well as a greater degree of creature comforts along the way. Steam, alongside screw propellers, and iron or steel hulls opened up amazing possibilities for ever grander and grander accommodations that largely isolated passengers from the vagaries of the sea. The 20th-century ushered in a race among European countries to build ever larger, faster, and more luxurious ocean liners beginning with the S.S. Great Britain as early as 1847 to Cunard's three magnificent "Queens" of today. The Viceroy of India (right), and later Cunard's Oriana (below) from the 1950s, moved the passenger liner of the first half of the century to the present day dominance of cruise liners such as the Island Princess (bottom).

The Oriana, seen here in Sydney, Australia, was one of the first ships to be
devoted solely to the budding cruise market of the 1950s and 60s.
The Island Princess

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