The Amazon, Royal Mail Steam Ship, Burnt 4th Jany. 1852 reverse glass painting.
The loss of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's liner Amazon, on her maiden voyage, was one of the earliest sizeable disasters of the steamship age and preceded one of the most famous of them all the sinking of the Birkenhead by a mere eight weeks.
Built on the Thames at Blackwall and launched by Lady Paget on 28th June 1851, Amazon cost £100,000 and was, when completed, the largest English-paddler of her day. Registered at 2,256 tons gross and measuring 316 feet in length with a 73 foot beam, she could steam at 12 knots and was designed to carry 100 first class passengers (or 360 troops if required). Ready for sea at the turn of the new year, she left Southampton for the West Indies on Friday 2nd January under the command of Captain Symonds. Aboard were 52 passengers, a crew of 109, £20,000 in specie and coin, together with £5,000 worth of mercury destined for the silver mines of Mexico.
On the first evening out, she was forced to heave-to off Portland Bill due to mechanical overheating problems and these persisted until, at 12.45pm. on 4th January, two serious fires broke out, one in the forward stokehold and the other in the forward boiler casings. Attempts to shut off the engines were thwarted by the flames and, within minutes, the entire amidships portion of the wholly wooden vessel was ablaze. All the while, the ship was bowling along at about 10 knots which, coupled with a rising wind, doomed all attempts to douse the fires and prevent them spreading. With many of the crew trapped below decks in the forward part of the ship, chaos reigned as men struggled to launch the lifeboats, their task made worse by the awesome flames and the fact that the ship was still underway, with her engines continuing to power her along at almost full speed. Despite tremendous difficulties, three lifeboats and a dinghy eventually got away safely and stood by until, in the gathering dusk, Amazon sank with her red-hot funnels glowing in the darkness. In all, 58 persons were saved and 104 perished, including all the ship's officers, although the one positive result of the disaster was the widespread recognition that, henceforth, steamships should be built with iron hulls.
Reverse paintings on glass had largely fallen from popularity by the mid-nineteenth century and surviving examples, especially when in good condition, are rare. The most recent example by Petrus Nefors seen in commerce was sold in these rooms on 22nd January 2003 (lot 322, £5,000).