Montague Dawson, F.R.S.A., R.S.M.A., (1895-1973)
"A Squadron of men-o'war of the Restoration Navy in the English Channel, with The White Cliffs of Dover in the distance"
Oil on canvas, signed bottom left
71 x 91.5 cm.
Regarded by many as the greatest marine painter of the twentieth century, Montague Dawson's name is synonymous with portraits of clipper ships, merchant and naval vessels battling against the elements on the high seas. While merchant vessels constituted the majority of his prolific output, he painted a variety of other maritime subjects including historical naval vessels either engaged in battle or as here, out on manoeuvre. He portrayed a number of pirate ships and scenes of smugglers, yachting portraits as well as regattas, races and coastal views featuring ports and harbours. He combined a strong understanding of his subject with great technical skill, recreating the image of a vessel as if it were actually moving through water. He achieved a phenomenal following during his lifetime among a public who continue to marvel at his ability to describe the translucent effect of light through water and the combination of sea, sky and ship in perfect harmony.
Dawson came from an artistic family, his grandfather, Henry Dawson (1811-78) was a marine and landscape artist of repute. His uncle, Alfred Dawson (fl. 1860-93) was a landscape painter and etcher while his father, Henry Thomas Dawson (fl. 1860-78) painted marines and was an expert yachtsman who tried his hand as an inventive engineer. Dawson was born in Chiswick. While he still young he and his family moved to Smuggler's House, overlooking Southampton Water, where he spent much of his free time in the family cutter and began to draw various types of ships and vessels. By the time he reached his teens he had won a painting competition organised by 'The Boy's Own Paper' and had also sold one of his paintings for 2s. 6d.
In 1910, aged 15, Dawson joined a commercial London art studio in Bedford Row, where he worked on posters and executed illustrative work. This experience was to prove invaluable when he was called up to fight during the First World War. While serving as a junior naval officer he contributed paintings and drawings to a number of the illustrated weekly newspapers, notably 'The Sphere'. He also served as a 'small boats' sailor in minesweepers and trawlers and was present at the surrender of the German Grand Fleet in 1918. His illustrations of this particular episode featured in a special edition of 'The Sphere'. These illustrations were generally in monochrome since colour did not become widespread until the Second World War. Dawson was one of a number of artists whose illustrations provided an important record of events prior to the advent of photojournalism. Fellow marine illustrators included William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), Charles Dixon (1872-1934) and Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971). As part of his war effort, the latter invented the 'Dazzle-Camouflage'. This involved painting the sides of ships with bold geometric patterns so as to confuse the enemy, for which Dawson provided a number of designs.
In the early 1930's Dawson set up home in Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire and soon after took up full-time professional painting. His skills were once again put to good use during the Second World War, when he was commissioned by the War Artist Advisory Commission and the Admiralty to depict naval battles and events. He was known as stickler for detail and would interview officers and crew, some of whom provided sketches and notes from which he would recreate an accurate visual account.
Although Dawson never received any formal art training he was always ready to learn from others. With the exception of his family, the most important influences in his career were the marine artists, Charles Napier Hemy (1841-1917) and Thomas Jacques Somerscales (1842-1927). Dawson was serving as a naval officer at Falmouth when he met Hemy working from a boat. From this floating studio, Hemy was able to record a variety of marine subjects. Dawson claimed that Hemy 'opened a doorway' for him and was particularly impressed by the ways in which the elder recorded every minute detail of the rigging and gear of the various ships, vessels and yachts. Dawson's more subdued palette and attention to detail during the 1920's owed much to Hemy's style. In contrast Dawson's later style which introduced brighter colours and a looser handling of paint owed more to the work of Jacques Somerscales. The latter who spent much of his career painting scenes off the South American coast generally showed his vessels at a distance, however his views of the high seas often in a stiff breeze, his attention to nautical details and fresh palette provided an inspiration Dawson and other younger artists.
Like Somerscales, Dawson sailed to warmer seas. During the 1920's he joined a ship (formerly owned by Kaiser Wilhelm III) in an endeavor to search for hidden treasure. Although he found none, the trip inspired a number of lively views of the Caribbean and imaginative scenes of buccaneers, pirates and smugglers. These adventure scenes, like the present oil were historical recreations but described with the vitality and accuracy of a modern day event. His views of historical battles and naval vessels were inspired by a knowledge of naval history and were probably based on contemporary accounts, prints and paintings as well as aide-memoirs such as ship models, plans and charts.
He was keen to exhibit his work, he was a member and regular exhibitor at the Society of Marine Artists, 1946-64, he also showed work at the Royal Academy between 1917 and 1936 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. It is said that Dawson did not enjoy undertaking commissioned work, preferring the freedom to paint what he chose. During the 1920's he became contracted to the art dealers, Messrs. Frost and Reed, who handled his output and reproduction rights. Through them he was invited to paint a number of yacht portraits, including those owned by the Vanderbilts and the Duke of Edinburgh. He also painted the Gypsy Moth IV in which Sir Francis Chichester completed the first solo one-stop circumnavigation of the world, 1967. Dawson was particularly fortunate in his career since he was passionate about his subject and his profession, for which he won critical acclaim and significant financial reward. It is reputed that after Picasso he was the highest paid artist in the world. The fame he enjoyed and the demand for his work during his lifetime has never ceased. And such is the quality of his work that his paintings continue to be keenly sought after and fought over at auction.
L. G. G. Ramsey's biography on Dawson of 1967 listed a number of the artist's pictures in prominent collections.
They included 'Bluebottle' given by the Queen Mother to the Duke of Edinburgh, Royal Collection Windsor and a scene of the battleship built 1797, entitled 'United States Frigate Constellation' presented to Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States. His scene showing the 'Action between the Constellation and the Insurgente' was owned by General Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States, while 'Morning, the Clipper Dawnpool' was in the collection of the First Boston Corporation, London and New York. The singer and comedian, Tommy Steele was listed as owning a battle scene depicting 'The Surrender of H. M. S. Nottingham', while the recreation of the famous teaclipper race entitled 'The Great Race between Ariel and Taeping, 1866', was in the collection of the businessman and philanthropist, Garfield Weston. In addition to private collectors Dawson is represented in notable public collections. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich London house six of his works while the Mariner's Museum, Newport owns sixteen works from his outstanding oeuvre.