Reviewed by Stanley C. Jenkins
The title of this publication is, in many ways, misleading, insofar as this 144-page, landscape-format book is very much more than a compilation of maritime paintings. As its name implies, the content is based upon the work of British maritime artist Simon Fisher, who has produced many fine paintings of RMS Titanic – including a unique set of eight limited edition prints which were signed by survivors of the disaster. At the same time, The Maritime Paintings of Simon Fisher is, in part, an autobiography in which the author recalls his childhood in post-World War Two Bath – a cold, drab city of bomb sites and crumbling tenements, with curious outside toilets that “clung like limpets” to the rear walls of the run-down Georgian terraces.
The author gives us some interesting insights regarding the early artistic influences on his career, which encompassed painters such as Franz Hals, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Terence Cuneo, together with – perhaps significantly – The Eagle comic, which was noted for its high-quality artwork and beautiful cutaway drawings, showing details of ships, locomotives, aircraft and other technical subjects:
“I grew up with an insatiable desire to draw and a constant interest in everything artistic, revelling in the wonderful illustrators of the day and their tremendous talent and expertise. Of course, as a growing boy in the latter half of the 1940s and into the 1950s, my first introduction to illustration was through the medium of comic art, be it The Beano, or The Dandy or the incomparable art of The Eagle, especially the beautiful work of Frank Hampson and, latterly, Frank Bellamy. The Eagle was my 'other world', where my imagination was fired up by the futuristic world of Dan Dare and his fantastic wandering through interstellar space. Then there was the back page of historic stories, such as 'The Life of Christ', 'Winston Churchill' and, of course, that centre spread showing some of the wonders of the burgeoning scientific marvels of the day, from the Comet jet airliner to the the latest warship or atomic-powered cargo ship, all in fabulous colour and cutaway to show the interior workings! I was in heaven. Two and a half pence every Wednesday!”
On leaving school, Simon worked in an advertising studio while studying part-time at the West of England Academy of Art in Bristol, and after marriage in 1973 he carried on the family grocery business, while continuing to work as an artist and using the shop as a studio. His breakthrough came in 1988 when, after exhibiting a painting entitled “The Titanic at Queenstown” at the Wembley Model Engineering Exhibition, he was inundated with requests for limited edition prints – which indicated that there was a “hole in the market” waiting to be filled:
“The response was more than I could have hoped for and the issue soon sold out, helped, in no small way, by the addition of two survivors of the sinking. I then proceeded to fund further prints in the series with some of the profits of the sales, concentrating on limited editions signed by people associated with the ship featured, producing, on average, two issues per year.
Within the series I issued two more Titanic prints to form a 'triptych'. However, I had not allowed for the release of a new film called Titanic. The spin-off generated by its release surpassed all expectations and set the scene for a further seven different editions. In addition there was work for exhibitions on the United States and sales across the world”.
Simon Fisher is now one of the best-known Titanic artists – sales of his prints run into many thousands, while his work is displayed in galleries and private collections throughout the world; The Maritime Paintings of Simon Fisher brings all of Simon's work together in a single volume for the very first time.
The main part of the book, occupying 50 pages, tells the story of the 'Olympic' class ocean liners in words and pictures, the “core pictures” being a series of views of RMS Titanic, which are set out in chronological sequence and illustrate the tragically-short life of the ill-fated ocean liner, from her construction under the Arrol Gantry in Belfast to moment she slid beneath the Atlantic at approximately 2.20 am on the morning of Monday 15th April 1912. The paintings have descriptive titles such as “Ready for Trials”, “Night Time Arrival”, “The Maiden Departure”, “Titanic Passing Cowes, Isle of Wight”, “Dusk, Cherbourg Harbour”, “Titanic at Queenstown”, “The Final Sunset”, “Iceberg Right Ahead”, “The Fatal Blow”, “The End of a Dream”, “The Final Plunge”, and “Salvation”.
Although the emphasis is very much on RMS Titanic, her two sisters are by no means forgotten. There is, for example, an interesting colour view of the Olympic leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, in World War One “dazzle paint”, and a night view of the Britannic in white “hospital ship” livery. The main colour plates are accompanied by a number of pencil profiles and line drawings, some of which were used as preliminary sketches for the paintings, while others show survivors of the sinking such as Milvina Deane and Eva Hart.
Subsequent sections of the book deal with the two Cunard 'Queens' and the Queen Elizabeth II, while the story is brought up-to-date by the inclusion of the Queen Victoria and Queen Mary II. As an added bonus, there are pictures and a considerable amount of information on various other liners, including the Lusitania, Aquitania, United States, Normandie, Ivernia, Atlantis, and Canberra. On a point of detail, the author reveals that, when working on limited edition print of the P&O liner Canberra, he had intended to portray her passing the Needles, at the western extremity of the Isle of Wight, but having subsequently learned that the Canberra had an unusually-deep daft and could not have used the “Needles” channel, he had to modify the initial painting and replace the Needles with one of the Palmerston forts – an interesting insight into the kind of research that is necessary in order to complete a successful limited edition print!
Although there are no numbered chapters, as such, the book is arranged in a number of distinct sections; for example, the Lusitania is the subject of a four-page section, while two pages are devoted to the Aquitania. Warships are not ignored, and in this context the Hood versus Bismarck duel warrants a fairly-substantial 10-page section, with colour views, profile drawings and photographs of British and German survivors.
There are also colour prints of the Japanese battleships Fuso and Yamato, the Fuso being a “modernised” Dreadnought, whereas the 72,800 ton Yamato was completed just a week after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. These two vessels were remarkable for their armoured and heavily built-up “pagoda” foremasts, which imparted a particularly menacing appearance – the Fuso, in particular, being a vessel of quite extraordinary appearance.
The book is well-written but some of the vocabulary may, in just a few places, sound slightly odd to British ears – for example, the Titanic's four distinctive funnels are described as “smoke stacks”, while Great Western Railway guards are, curiously, referred-to as “guardsmen”.
On a minor point, which is in no way intended as criticism, it could be argued that, as a genre, maritime paintings are often most effective when their subjects are viewed from historically-appropriate vantage points, such as harbour walls, headlands or from sea-level. Aerial views can be useful, in that they show additional details of deck fittings, etc., that would not otherwise have been visible, but they present greater difficulties in relation to early 20th century vessels such as RMS Titanic, which would not have been viewed from overhead – helicopters not having been brought into use in 1912! On the other hand, aerial paintings of vessels such as the Canberra or the Queen Elizabeth II seem much more natural, because we have become accustomed to seeing them filmed or photographed from aircraft (indeed, both of the above-mentioned vessels were fitted with helicopter platforms for the duration of the 1982 Falklands conflict).
On a purely personal level, I would say that “The Final Sunset”, which was painted for an exhibition in Memphis, is one of the most evocative images of the Titanic that has every been produced. It depicts the Titanic steaming west towards the setting sun on the evening of Sunday 14th April; this was, of course, the last time that the sun would ever shine upon the doomed ship. Survivors such as Lawrence Beesley recalled that, until that point, the voyage had been a delightful experience, and that the last Sunday had been a perfect day, which culminated in a well-attended hymn-service at 8.30 pm. The passengers had settled-in to the routine of the ship, and although the temperature had suddenly dropped dramatically, the spectacular sunset “seemed to auger a fine night and a clear day tomorrow, and the prospct of landing in two days, with calm weather all the way to New York”. “The Final Sunset” - a low angle, sea-level view which emphasies the sheer size of RMS Titanic and her graceful lines – seems to capture this moment in time to perfection.
In all, The Maritime Paintings of Simon Fisher is a handsome, well-produced book which would make an ideal gift for anyone with an interest in Atlantic liners and the 20th century maritime history.
To oder the book of view prints by Simon Fisher visit: simonfishermaritime.com