A Windjammer heaving to off Valparaiso signed 'T. Somerscales' and dated 1905 (lower right) oil on canvas 49.5 x 75.6cm. (19 1/2 x 29 3/4in.) unframed
Born in Kingston-upon-Hull in 1842, Thomas Jacques Somerscales had joined H.M.S. 'Cumberland' as a naval schoolmaster by the time he was 21, a career he pursued on various ships, until he contracted a fever and was discharged from the Royal Navy in Valparaiso in 1869. He soon began teaching in the Artizan School, Valparaiso, and exhibited a series of landscapes in Santiago in 1872. Indeed, for a long time all he painted was landscapes and it is for this genre that he is still best-known in Chile today. Valparaiso was not as culturally backward as one might assume; indeed Whistler had painted scenes in Valparaiso harbour a few years prior to Somerscales' arrival. There was a fairly closely-knit British community, largely Scottish, in Valparaiso, into which Somerscales had been readily accepted. When war broke out between Chile and Peru in 1879, Somerscales began painting the naval battles and there was soon a tremendous demand for marine pictures depicting Chile's recent naval history. This was a turning point in his artistic career and from that time on he became a marine painter first and foremost; indeed it was to be his sea pictures on which his international reputation was founded. In 1890 his daughter Alice died and this tragic event led to great strains within the family. Added to this, his eldest sons were reaching university age and Somerscales was also thinking of his mother, back in Hull, who has never met his wife and children. At the end of 1892 he sold his house in Valparaiso and returned to England. When he arrived at Liverpool he had been away for nearly 30 years and he was now 50 years old. The enormous reputation which he had enjoyed in Chile had been left behind and he was a completely unknown artist in his own country. In the following year he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy, London, which was considered a 'tour de force' by the critics. The question on everyone's lips, however, was 'Who is Thomas Somerscales ?' He showed the famous (and oft-reproduced) 'Off Valparaiso' at the R.A. in 1899, no.943, which was purchased for the Chantrey Bequest for £250 and now hangs in Tate Britain. He continued to visit Chile on and off until 1915, when he returned to Britain for the last time. He died in Hull in 1927.
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich has 2 of his works and there are 4 examples in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. He exhibited 23 pictures at the Royal Academy, London. His evocative depictions of clippers in South American waters, are justly famous and as Alex Hurst noted in his monograph on the artist :- 'When he was born, almost all vessels were bluff-bowed and apple-checked and it was only within his lifetime that the clipper era came into being and passed away.'
Bibliography :- 'Thomas Somerscales, marine artist', Alex A. Hurst, Teredo Books, Brighton, 1988.