Marine History of Yarmouth Nova Scotia
Yarmouth County Museum
Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
06 - What Can We Learn from a Ship Portrait?
1Using two ship portraits, those of the 'Mary Durkee' and the 'Lillian L. Robbins', this 'story' will point out a number of the interesting facts and other items that can be learned from ship paintings.
The ship 'Mary Durkee', built at Meteghan, N.S. in 1861 for Amasa Durkee of Yarmouth, remained under Yarmouth ownership until 1884. Then she was sold to Norwegian interests and re-registered at Drammen under the name 'Magdalena'. She was wrecked in 1889.
Our painting of the 'Mary Durkee' is a 'reverse glass' painting - painted on glass but on the side away from the viewer. That means it had to be painted in reverse order, i.e. the details painted in first with the sky and sea being included last, quite a process! The painting, although not signed, is certainly the work of C.L. Weyts of Antwerp who employed different family members to complete various aspects of the work. For example, one person went to the docks to draw the ship (backwards). This drawing was placed below glass and the painting 'worked up' from the drawing. The gold may have been added by yet another family member.
Please look at the following illustrations numbers to discover a few things about paintings and what they can tell us about the ships they represent. The captions will explain each point.
The caption provides 'written' information and gives the ship's name, its port of registry, the captain's name as well as the ship's location and the date: ' 'Mary Durkee', of Yarmouth, N.S.' and 'Capt. A. Crosby Passing Flushing 1867'. Often, although not in this case, we can find the artist's name, his location and the date the painting was completed.
And here is Flushing in the misty background, complete with Dutch windmills, church steeples and gabled houses. Flushing is the entrance to the River Schelde (sometimes spelled 'Scheldt') which leads to Antwerp - one of Europe's busiest ports and one which was frequently visited by Yarmouth sailing vessels. The ship's figurehead is probably a likeness of either Mary Durkee, the owner's wife, or Mary Durkee, their daughter.
Also in the hazy background can be seen a pilot cutter. This was the boat, in this case a single masted vessel called a 'cutter', which was used to put a pilot aboard a vessel or to take one off. A pilot was a seaman, usually as 'Master Mariner', who was very knowledgeable about the entrance to a specific port. He would know and understand where all the dangers to navigation were, the tidal or river currents and other particularities of the area. Once he came aboard, the ship's captain, who may not be familiar with the area, would turn over control of the ship to the pilot (although he might still overrule the pilot if he thought the ship was in danger). The pilot would then take the ship in. When the vessel was ready to leave port the pilot would again come aboard until the vessel was safely out to sea whereupon he would be picked up by the patrolling pilot boat.
British or Canadian ships in the days of sail would hoist this flag when entering a port if a pilot was required. A 'pilot' was a seaman, usually a Master Mariner, who knew the dangers and channels of a specific port in detail, and who would board the vessel to ensure its safety when entering or leaving that port.
Many of the museum's ship portraits show vessels with their 'pilot flag' flying at the 'foremast peak' (the top of the foremast). Inevitably these paintings also show the pilot vessel, a small sloop or schooner-rigged vessel, approaching with the pilot on board.
At the top of the mainmast is flying the ship's name pennant. The word 'pennant' is used to denote a long thin, usually tapering, flag. The 'Mary Durkee' pennant would likely have been made by the ship's sailmaker, if one was carried aboard, or perhaps even by the captain or his wife.
Sometimes, in place of the name pennant, the ship's 'house flag' (the owner's flag) could be seen in this position. The 'house flag' is often seen in portraits which were commissioned for the owner rather than for the captain - not the case with this painting of the 'Mary Durkee'.
In 1817 Capt. Frederick Marryat devised a numerical code of flags which allowed merchant ship to be identified from a distance. A ship 'made its number' in order to identify itself. Passing ships made a note of the other's identity and, once in port, reported this information so that the other ship's owners could learn about its progress, as well as the date and position where the two ships met. The shipowners could then estimate their ship's arrival and have a new cargo ready for shipment.
In 1857 an international 'Commercial Code' was developed. This code, which used flags representing letters, later became the 'International Code'. Various combinations of letters could be used to identify a vessel or to make sentences such as 'Do you have a doctor onboard?' or 'My destination is Liverpool, England'.
The flags in this 'hoist' are from the 'Marryat's Code' and read: 3rd Distinguishing Pennant, 8,2,1,9. This code represents the 'Mary Durkee' and could be recognized by all who had the correct code book.
This is the famous 'Red Duster': the flag used to denote the nationality of all British vessels. At that time Canadian vessels were also deemed to be British and so flew the 'Red Ensign'. Later a Canadian crest would sometimes be shown in the centre of the red portion of the flag to the left of the Union Jack.
The figurehead of the 'Mary Durkee' was a female figure. This one undoubtedly represents Mary Durkee but since both the wife and daughter of the ship's owner, Amasa Durkee, was named Mary so we don't really know who this figurehead represents. Figureheads are a carryover from the ancient days when sailors painted figures or eyes on the bows of their vessels so that the vessels might see where they were going.
The chains in this illustration are supports for the bowsprit: the angled ones are the 'bobstays' and the horizontal ones the 'martingale guys'.
The 'forecastle' (pronounced 'fo'c'sle') is the raised portion of the deck at the bow of the vessel. The word comes from medieval ships which had a 'castle' at the bow and stern from where the soldiers fought. In older ships the crew lived in the space below the 'forecastle' -that space was also called the 'forecastle'. Later on, when the crew lived in a house on the main deck this space was also called the 'forecastle'. It can be a very confusing term. In this illustration three crew members are working sails.
The 'bowline' is the 'line' (the nautical word for a rope) attached by two smaller lines (a 'bridle') to the side of the sail - the 'bowline' keeps the sail from collapsing if the wind hits the front of the sail. Or, as de Kerchove defines it in his "International Marine Dictionary", 'Bowline: a rope attached to the leech of a sail by a bridle and leading forward. Its purpose is to steady the weather leech, and thus make the ship sail nearer the wind.'
In this illustration you can see the 'forecastle' - the house on deck where the sailors lived.
Often when wooden ships were being built large trees for the masts were not available. In that case several pieces of wood would be put together and bound with iron hoops to form a 'built mast'. Such a mast is visible in this picture.
In this illustration one of the ship's boats can be seen - turned upside down and lashed to the boat skids. Ships usually carried two or three boats which could be used to transfer people and goods between the ship and other vessels or the shore. They were also used for lifesaving either for rescuing crews from other ships or themselves if their own vessel had to be abandoned.
The white bands around the mast indicate that this mast was a 'built mast' - made up of several pieces of wood bound together rather than one stick of wood.
The 'ratlines' which the sailors climbed to handle the upper sails can also be clearly seen in this part of the painting.
The 'poopdeck' is the remaining evidence of the old medieval ship's 'after castle' (see illustration 6.10). The ship was controlled from this area, both literally and figuratively. The ship's wheel was situated near the 'stern' (and above the 'rudder') and controlled the direction in which the ship was headed. The captain or his officer in charge remained on the poopdeck to direct the operations of the crew. The three figures in this illustration (left to right) are the 'officer of the watch' at the 'break of the poop', the captain with his telescope and the 'helmsman' who is steering the ship.
While the sailors lived in the 'forecastle' the captain and his officers lived in cabins below the 'poopdeck'. The 'skylight' which allowed light into the main cabin can be see just forward of the captain.
The 'bowsprit' (black spar) and its extension the 'jib boom' (brown spar) can be seen here. The complexity of the supporting lines and the downward projecting spar (the 'martingale') is shown here as are the 'headsails' (left to right: 'flying jib', 'outer jib', 'inner jib' and 'foretopmast staysail'). The sail to the extreme right is the 'foresail'.
The 'foresail' is the lowest, and largest, sail on the 'foremast'. The 'cloths' (vertical strips of canvas two or three feet (.6 to 1 metre) wide from which the sail is made can be see here. The 'reef points' (series of small lines hanging down in a row from the 'reef band') were used to shorten or 'to reef' the sail in heavy winds. This was done by hoisting the portion of the sail up to the 'yard' (wooden spar from which the sail hangs) by means of the 'reef tackle' (block and tackle which goes from 'reef band' to 'yardarm') and then tying the 'reef points' from the front to those at the back of the sail (not seen because of the sail) over the bunched up sail and the yardarm - the knot used for this was a 'reef knot'.
The two lines which go from the top to the bottom of the sail are 'buntlines' (see slide 6.20)
The two sails in the middle of this picture are the 'fore upper topsail' and the 'fore lower topsail'. Prior to 1855 these would have been one sail, the 'fore topsail' but it was found that in larger vessels this sail was just too heavy for the crew to handle and so was split into two separate sails. In strong winds the 'lower topsail' would be simply taken in while the 'upper topsail' could be 'reefed' as conditions dictated.
The 'fore upper topsail' with its 'reef points', 'reef band', 'reef tackles' (see slide 6.16) can be seen in detail here.
The 'fore topgallant' sail is shown here. It is too small to be 'reefed' in heavy weather and would be taken in completely. This evolution was accomplished by hoisting the 'buntlines' and the 'leech lines' (lines from top of sail to bottom and to sides ['leeches']) from the deck which would pull the sail up to the 'yard'. The sailors would then go 'aloft' to properly 'furl' the sail.
The lines which can be seen crossing the sail, going from the mast down towards the left, are 'stays' for the 'jib boom' and 'bowsprit'. All the 'headsails' would be attached to these when they were set.
The 'mainsail' is show here 'in the bunt' - hoisted up to the 'yard' in preparation for 'furling'.
The 'crossjack' or 'mizzen sail' is shown here with a 'harbour furl' or properly 'furled' (so that it looks good while the ship is in harbour and in front of the eyes of other sailors and people concerned with the business of the ship). This sail was rarely used as sea as it often 'blanketed' or prevented the wind of reaching the 'mainsail' which was one of the most important sail in driving the ship.
The two 'main staysails' can be see here set between the fore- and mainmasts. The 'stays' are the lines which support the mast from the front (as opposed to 'backstays') which support them from behind. 'Staysails' are attached to the 'stays' with 'hanks'.
This view shows the complexity of rigging between the main- and mizzenmasts. 'Braces' which swing the 'yards' around are normally led 'aft' (backwards) however, since there is no where for the 'mizzen braces' to be attached 'abaft' that mast they have to be led forward to a 'block' and then led 'aft' so that the crew can haul the 'mizzen yards' around as required. This means that there are a lot more lines than between the fore- and mainmasts. This complexity of rigging means that it is difficult to set and control 'mizzen staysails' and so they are often omitted from ship portraits since they are not used as much as 'main staysails'.
The 'spanker' is the large rectangular 'fore-and-aft' sail set 'abaft' the 'mizzenmast'. The 'spanker' is attached to a 'gaff' at its 'head' and a 'boom' at its 'foot'. The 'forward' side is called the 'luff' and the 'after' side the 'leech'.
The ship 'Lillian L. Robbins', built of steel in Greenock, Scotland in 1892 for J. Y. Robbins, G. Sanderson and others of Yarmouth. This portrait was painted by a Chinese artist in Hong Kong in 1984. The Yarmouth County Archives owns the 'Diary of a Voyage' written by Evelyn E. Robbins, who at the age of about fifteen, accompanied his father, Captain E.E. Robbins, his mother and sister Emma on this voyage from New York to Hong Kong and return. Using this diary we can learn a lot from this painting.
The figures shown in this illustration are Captain & Mrs. Robbins with their daughter Emma and, in his shirtsleeves, young Evelyn Robbins, writer of the diary.
Sampan number 2411 which was employed by Capt. Robbins to transport himself and his family to and from the ship. Young Evelyn's diary tells us that this boat was owned by Chic, who, along with his wife, son (A Kow) and daughters (A Ty, A Ni and A No) lived aboard the boat.
A typical Hong Kong sampan-possibly a 'bumboat' used to sell fruit or souvenirs to the sailors. This might even be the boat used by the crew until November 5th when, as the diary relates 'Crew had liberty, Bumboat, Washerwoman, etc. stopped on account of drunkenness.'
The ship's boats are arranged at the davits ready to be lowered for use. Also the accommodation ladder has been rigged to allow easy access to the boats once they are in the water.
In the background of this view can be seen the funicular railway which carried the Robbins to the restaurant at the top of the range of hills.
This portion of the painting shows a collection of vessels in the background including a grey-hulled steamer, three large square-rigged sailing vessels, two large junks and a smaller one under sail. The diary gives the names of all the vessels in the harbour at the time.
This small steamer may be the 'Dayspring' which picked up Evelyn and Mr. MacKenzie, the second mate, on several occasions, possibly even on the night of November 16th when they went to the mission concert and when 'Mr. MacKenzie and I signed the Pledge'.
68The basic information in this story is taken from Eric Ruff's article 'Ship Portraits: Take a Closer Look' published by the Nova Scotia Museum in "The Occasional", Vol. 12, No. 1, 1989.
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