John (Jack) Robert Charles Spurling (British, 1870-1933)
The square-rigged Australian clipper Old Kensington lying on her mooring signed 'J.Spurling' and dated 1930 (lower left) pen, ink and bodycolour 36 x 50.8cm (14 3/16 x 20in).
LITERATURE: Frederick Arthur Hook (editor), in collaboration with Basil Lubbock and John Spurling, 'Sail, The Romance of the Clipper Ships', 3 volumes, London, 1927, 1929 & 1936, and subsequent reprints. Basil Lubbock, 'The Colonial Clippers', Brown, Son & Ferguson Ltd., Glasgow, 1921. Warren Moore, 'Spurling, Sail and Steam', Patrick Stephens Ltd., Cambridge, 1980.
In his text to 'Sail, The Romance of the Clipper Ships', Basil Lubbock begins the entry for this vessel as follows:
"There were few clippers in the Australian trade which gave one such an impression of majestic dignity and power as the Old Kensington. With her black topsides and light bottom she was indeed a grand-looking vessel."
A "grand-looking vessel" she certainly was and this elegant portrait of her by 'Jack' Spurling was the one selected to illustrate Lubbock's masterly text. In his much later book Spurling, 'Sail and Steam', Warren Moore calls the image "typical of Spurling's crepuscular genre" and imparting "a harmonious note of peace and repose" which, notwithstanding the grandiose turn of phrase, is a worthy tribute to such an attractive work. Indeed, the publication of 'Sail, The Romance of the Clipper Ships' was what first laid Spurling's work before a wider audience and, in effect, secured his reputation as a maritime painter of substance.
Born in Suffolk on 12th December 1870, John Robert Charles Spurling invariably know as 'Jack' was the son of a prosperous importer who dealt mainly in jute, the trade which gave the aspiring artist his first contact with ships and the sea. During his youth spent in London, he occupied much of his time by sketching ships usually in the East India Docks at Blackwall until, at the age of sixteen, he went to sea as an apprentice where he served for seven years. After coming ashore, he obtained work as an actor in George Edwards' musical productions whilst continuing with his painting as a hobby until his ship portraits came to the attention of Frederick Hook, the editor of the popular nautical magazine The Blue Peter. The publication of the initial selection of paintings proved an immediate success and Hook thereafter commissioned Spurling to produce many more works for the magazine which were published over a number of years.
A regular contributor to the same magazine was Basil Lubbock, one of Britain's leading maritime authors at the time, who, between the two World Wars, wrote a series of superlative books on the various aspects of commercial sail which are still regarded as the definitive record of a way of life that has now totally disappeared. In the mid-1920s, Lubbock and Spurling were approached by Frederick Hook to collaborate with him on a particularly interesting project which would come to be seen as one of the great milestones in the efforts to chronicle the history of commercial sailing ships. In his editor's preface, Hook wrote:
"This book does not claim to be a history of the clipper ships, although Mr. Lubbock's illuminating text sets out the salient points of the history and performances of typical vessels of the clipper ship era. One chief purpose has been adequately and handily to present a selection from amongst Mr. Spurling's pictures, painted for The Blue Peter, reproducing, by a special process, their original qualities of form, movement and colour."
This modesty however, belied the quality of the production, both text and illustrations, and the first volume of the book was so well-received that, in due course, two more followed to form the now familiar set, beautified throughout with Spurling's accomplished paintings.
As to the ship herself, Old Kensington was built by Potter of Liverpool for the London firm of Smith, Bilbrough & Co. Launched in October 1874, she was registered at 1,817 tons gross (1,777 net), measured 262 feet in length with a 42 foot beam, and designed for the Australian wool trade. Upon completion however, it was felt that she was almost too large for the wool run and thus spent her career alternating between several other bulk cargoes including jute, grain and salt, as well as the Australian fleeces for which she had been intended. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had no passenger accommodation but concentrated on freight even though she soon acquired an excellent reputation for speed which followed her wherever she sailed. Thanks to her huge expanse of sail and her 'long flat floor', her best passages were always on the outward run to Australia, where the 'Roaring Forties' gave her every chance to show her mettle. Often recording speeds in excess of 16 knots, she regularly made Melbourne in under 80 days which, for any square-rigger, was a notable achievement.
Having enjoyed a remarkably accident-free first fifteen years, Old Kensington's only serious mishap occurred in 1889 when she was on passage from Newcastle, New South Wales, bound for San Pedro, California. Towards the end of the voyage, her cargo of coal was found to be smouldering and, by the time she eventually made port, she was "literally ablaze" according to eye witnesses. Her master, Captain Jones, immediately beached her and smothered the fire with water, whereupon she was refloated and towed into San Pedro docks none the worse for her ordeal. Sold to E.C. Schramm & Co. of Bremen in 1900 and renamed Christel, she disappears from record after 1909.