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Pierhead painting forms a distinct genre of popular, or folk, art. The earliest examples appear in the 18th century though most date from the late 19th and early 20th century. They are mostly simple portraits of merchant ships and fishing vessels. They have little in common with the elaborate seascape of the traditional and academic schools of marine art. Pierhead artists are often described as naïve but this does not account for the skill of some of these artists. Neither does it allow for the accurate and often quite meticulous attention to detail.
Those pictures that survive preserve, with accurate details, the only pictorial evidence of certain historic types of vessel. The typical portrait was a broadside view of the vessel at sea, or leaving harbour. In the former, a lighthouse of lightship in the background often serve to identify the location, in the latter harbour piers were sometimes illustrated. The vessel always took precedence in the painting and the background, often out of scale, served to mainly identify the port.
The style of Pierhead originated in Europe, where schools of artists grew up in the main ports catering for visiting merchant vessels. The development of this genre linked to the expansion in merchant trade that took place in the early 19th century. These paintings needed to be produced and sold quickly before potential customers left port, so the designs became standardised for quick and easy production.
Little is known about many of the ‘Pierhead painters’ beyond the names they signed. They were usually self-taught and consequently their work is free of formal painting technique. Ship portraiture was often a sideline activity to supplement an income. However for a few artists, it became their means of livelihood.
Steam Drifter E.E.S YH740
This typical portrait shows a broadside view of the vessel at sea entering harbour. In this image the artist has shown the crew of the E.E.S hauling the fishing nets. The location is identified by the addition of the Smith’s Knoll lightship on the left hand side of the picture.
Swan developed a particular formula specialising in lively pictures almost exclusively of Great Yarmouth herring drifters. His sharply drawn boats set against bright blue skies suggest a real enjoyment his work.
Theme: Marine Art
Exhibition: Pierhead Painting
Oil Painting by William Joy 1803 -1867
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Dean Regan showing how to paint
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