Fishing boats running home through Spithead at the end of the day signed 'W.L. Wyllie' and dated 1925 (lower left) oil on canvas 57.8 x 120.6cm (22 3/4 x 47 1/2in).
PROVENANCE : Malcolm Henderson Gallery, 1978, where bought by the present owner
EXHIBITED : London, Royal Academy, 1925, no. 248 as The Fairway into Portsmouth
ILLUSTRATED: RA Pictures, 1925, illustrated p. 50.
This serene seascape is taken from the shore at Old Portsmouth (near to where Wyllie lived), looking out towards Bembridge and the sea. The 'Fairway' buoys (which designate the entrance to Portsmouth harbour) are shown in the foreground and the leading boat is just into the 'fairway' approach. All three of the Spithead forts - 'No Man's Land', 'Horse Sands' and 'Spitbank' - are depicted and there is a Swedish square-rigger (possibly a training ship) at anchor in front of the last of them. Most of the eastern part of the Solent is very shallow; indeed, the shoals around the forts are only covered by 6 - 12 feet of water at low tide and the forts were positioned on them in order to defend the strategic shipping channels leading to the Royal Navy's principal naval base in the nineteenth century.
The Spithead Forts, along with the land-based fortifications on Portsdown Hill, overlooking Portsmouth, were first proposed by the Royal Commission on the National Defences and enthusiastically supported by the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who, despite Britain's alliance with France during the Crimean War (1854-56), remained convinced that the French were England's natural enemy who one day would try and exact revenge for their defeats at Trafalgar and Waterloo. The massive project was approved in September 1860 and the civil engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw, was retained as a consultant to advise on construction methods following his previous experience building the Severn (Railway) Tunnel and the Hungerford and Cannon Street railway bridges. Work started on 'No Man's Land' and 'Horse Sands' forts in July 1861, but construction of the 'Spitbank' fort did not begin until March 1867. Screw piles were sunk into the area around the sites and these were used to support wooden staging which, in turn, supported huts for the workmen along with a circular railway accommodating a steam crane. Stone blocks were lowered onto the sea-bed to act as foundations for the construction. The massive stones were transported from quarries by rail to a preparation area at nearby Stokes Bay where they were trimmed to size, marked up and laid out as they would be reassembled on the site. The interior was constructed of concrete blocks manufactured at Stokes Bay and then transported to the site by barge. The armour used to protect the forts was 25" thick, made up of a combination of alternate layers of wrought iron and 'iron concrete', although teak and wrought iron layers were used in other places. 'Spitbank' fort was finally completed in June 1878 and the other two followed in the spring of 1880.
The two outer forts - 'Horse Sands' and 'No Man's Land' - are almost identical at 200 feet in diameter, being fully armour-plated, and having two gun decks each, whilst 'Spitbank' fort is slightly smaller at 150 feet in diameter, with iron plating on the exterior only; each fort was manned by 30 men. By 1909 the area between 'Horse Sands' fort and the coast at Southsea was further protected by a line of concrete blocks, which can still be seen today at low tide. A similar line was also constructed between 'No Man's Land' fort and the Isle of Wight which ensured that all shipping was carefully channelled between the two forts. The forts were never, in fact, used to repel any French invasion force, the specific purpose for which they had been designed. However, during the Second World War they bristled with 6" guns, although they were not large enough to house heavy anti-aircraft guns.
Portsmouth and its environs have proved inspirational for generations of painters. All the major British maritime artists have been attracted to depicting scenes in and around the harbour, including Joseph Mallord William Turner, who painted a watercolour titled 'Gosport, The Entrance To Portsmouth Harbour' in 1829. Others include Clarkson Stanfield, Robert Cleveley, Dominic Serres, Robert Dodd, Edward William Cooke, Jean Jacques Joseph Tissot, William Anderson, Francis Swaine, George Chambers Sns., John Lynn, Thomas Elliott, Robert Strickland Thomas, Arthur Wellington Fowles, George Webster, Charles Edward Dixon as well as Wyllie, the greatest British maritime painter of the 20th century.