The four-masted wool clipper Port Jackson cutting through a heavy swell under reefed topsails signed 'J.Spurling' (lower right) oil on canvas 63.5 x 76cm (25 x 29 15/16in).
PROVENANCE: A gift from the artist Thence by descent
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 Sail, The Romance of the Clipper Ships, Basil Lubbock begins the entry for this vessel as follows:
"This beautiful four-mast (sic) barque is best remembered as one of Devitt & Moore's celebrated cadet ships; and there must be a great number of officers in the Mercantile Marine who look back to their time in Port Jackson with that warm-hearted feeling which shore-goers keep for an old school."
She certainly was "beautiful" and even though Spurling, in the event, chose a different image to the one offered here to illustrate Lubbock's majestic text, both pictures nevertheless convey, more than adequately, Port Jackson's practical elegance as a masterwork of design and rig, strength and seaworthiness. In fact, it was the publication of Sail, The Romance of the Clipper Ships which 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 known 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 vessel herself, Port Jackson named for the inlet on the east coast of Australia usually known as Sydney Harbour was designed by Alexander Duthie and built in Hall's yard at Aberdeen in 1882. Costing £29,000 to build and intended for the Australian wool trade, she was registered at 2,212 tons gross (2,132 net) and measured 286 feet in length with a 41 foot beam. Amongst his many paeans of praise, Lubbock also says of her that "as a specimen of an iron ship of this era, Port Jackson was hard to beat. She was always celebrated for her good looks, and her performances equalled them." On her maiden voyage out she made Sydney in 77 days, the first four-masted barque ever to do the run in under 80 days, and this remains a record to this day. Her best-ever run was 345 miles in 24 hours, an extraordinary distance for a sailing vessel of her size and tonnage. Her first master, Captain Crombie, stayed with her for nearly ten years, during which time she 'turned heads' wherever she went. Quite apart from that record passage out to Australia in 1882, Crombie also enjoyed the kudos of his celebrated run of 39 days, Sydney to San Francisco, when he arrived in the 'Golden Gate' a mere three days behind the mail steamer, both having left port together.
Despite all this celebrity, the Australian wool run was a fairly routine operation and Port Jackson maintained her excellent if uneventful schedules until 1904 when, thanks to falling freight rates, she was laid up in the Thames pending sale. In 1906, as it began to look as if she was heading for the breakers' yard, she was bought by Devitt & Moore and put to work as a training ship for the company's cadets. For the next eight years she sailed regularly to Australia and back with a cadet crew, but was laid up at Grimsby when War was declared in August 1914. Soon back at work due to the wartime shipping shortages, she survived almost three years until, on 28th April 1917, she was sunk without warning by a German submarine in the Irish Sea whilst en route home from Buenos Aires with a cargo of wheat; 15 men were saved but her master and 12 crew were lost.