John (Jack) Robert Charles Spurling (British, 1870-1933) The square-rigged wool clipper Argonaut under full sail and running before the wind, with the P.& O. steamer Mooltan in her wake astern

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Lot 77
(Jack) Robert Charles Spurling (British, 1870-1933)
The square-rigged wool clipper Argonaut under full sail and running before the wind, with the P.& O. steamer Mooltan in her wake astern

Sold for £ 25,200 (US$ 34,510) inc. premium
John (Jack) Robert Charles Spurling (British, 1870-1933)
The square-rigged wool clipper Argonaut under full sail and running before the wind, with the P.& O. steamer Mooltan in her wake astern
signed 'J. Spurling' and dated 1925 (lower left)
120 x 90cm (47 1/4 x 35 1/2in).


  • 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.

    Although not to be confused with the celebrated composite tea clipper of the same name, the iron square-rigger ‘Argonaut’ was just as magnificent when running before the wind under a practically full spread of sail as evidenced by this elegant portrait of her by ‘Jack’ Spurling. Undoubtedly a tour de force by the artist, it is equally certain that it is amongst his finest works since it was the image selected as the frontispiece to the first volume of the classic three-volume reference that laid his 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 book was so well-received that, in due course, two further volumes followed to form the now familiar set. Jack Spurling’s paintings beautify all three volumes yet it is surely a testament to the excellence of this portrait of ‘Argonaut’ that it should have been this image chosen to adorn the book’s frontispiece.

    As to the ship herself, ‘Argonaut’ was ordered for A. & J.H. Carmichael’s Golden Fleece Line and built by Barclay, Curle at Glasgow in 1876. Registered in Greenock at 1,563 tons gross (1,488 net), she measured 255 feet in length with a 39 foot beam and was, in the words of Basil Lubbock, “a typical Carmichael iron main skysail yarder”. Although not exclusively a wool carrier, she spent most of her career in the lucrative Australian wool trade where she proved both fast as well as handsome, in addition to possessing an enviable reputation for seaworthiness. Her fastest homeward passage, when fully laden, was 77 days, Sydney to London, in 1895, under her penultimate master Captain Hunter, but her two previous commanders also got the best out of her. In 1881, under Captain Cook, she came home from Melbourne in 81 days and in 1885, under Captain Bonner, she ran out to Sydney from Liverpool in 78 days.

    Sold to J.A. Ferreira of Lisbon in 1893 and renamed ‘Elvira’, she remained in Portuguese registry after being sold again in 1913 and renamed ‘Argo’. Surviving the Great War, she finally disappears from record soon afterwards, presumably scrapped.
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